Njall could not stop looking at the wolf.
She lay on the flags before the fire in his father's hall at Nithogsfjoll and panted, despite the chill. Njall was sixteen, almost a man, even if he was hoping for just one more spurt of growth, but her head was as broad as the span of his palm between her eyes. His arms couldn't have circled her barrel, and if she rose on her long racer's legs, she would--almost--be able to look him in the eye, were her attention not reserved entirely for her master.
She was big even for a trellwolf, and more, she looked tired. Her winter coat was shedding in hanks and clumps, like handfuls of dirty rags gray with scrub-water, and he could see her ribs under the skin like sprung staves. Her midsection bulged with the promise of pups, and her heavy black nipples leaked watery fluid on the stones where she lay, infinitely patient, waiting for her master to finish his business with Njall's father.
Njall didn't know what the business was, exactly, but he did know his father wasn't pleased to be doing it. Njall had been exiled--not to the boys' dormitory but to his mother'sempty solar--and fed his noon meal in isolation and bid stay like a puppy. Which he was not, and it rankled. Perhaps it was the insult that sent him, once the ale and bread and cheese and wizened last-winter apple were gone, edging down the long ragged curve of the stair to peer around the corner into the hall, stone rough under his palms, and learn what business his father had that his heir was excluded from.
And perhaps it was curiosity, too, for the men of the wolfheall almost never came to the keep. They were not welcome here, and they knew it.
The wolf had noticed him, for her ears flicked toward him now and again, but she never moved her firelight-hazel eyes from her master's face.
Njall had seen her master before--had even seen her at his side--among the cottages that clustered around the roots of his father's keep like goslings huddled at their mother's feet. The wolfcarl was a big man, almost as tall and stocky as a troll himself, wild-bearded, his graying red hair braided back from his temples; the edge of the axe he carried was bright with nicks and sharpening. He was Hrolleif, the Old Wolf, high-ranked in the werthreat, and Njall knew the villagers--and the manor--owed him obedience and fear.
Obedience, for he and the trellwolves and the werthreat were all that stood between the village and the trolls and wyverns of the North. And fear, for he was of the Wolfmaegth, the Wolf-brethren, and not quite human anymore. The more so because he had bonded a bitch, a Queen-wolf, with all that that implied.
Njall had heard stories about the werthreat and the trellwolves all his life; when he was a little boy, his nurse had threatened him that if he wasn't good, his father would tithe him to the wolfheall. Everyone knew the men of the wolfheall were half-wolf themselves, dark and violent in their passions, that they drank the blood of their fallen enemies and nursed from the teats of their she-wolves. Nodecent man, said Njall's father, wanted anything to do with them.
Njall didn't want anything to do with Hrolleif. He just wanted to look at the wolf.
His father's voice rang across the hall: "And I'm telling you there are no boys of an age to give to your tithe. You won't take them little but you don't want them once they've come to be men, either. We do not have that many children, wolfheofodman, and I cannot conjure them out of the fire for your asking."
"I thought your eldest son was of an age, Lord Gunnarr."
"My son is not for the tithe!"
Njall flinched back at the vehemence in his father's voice, and the wolf's head turned. For a dizzying moment her eyes caught him, pinned him like a spear through the gut, firelight and autumn leaves and a clarity he'd never seen in a dog's eyes, and then she looked back to her master, and Hrolleif laughed.
"Come out, then, pup! Let us see this boy who is not for the tithe."
Njall heard his father curse, and if it had just been Hrolleif he wouldn't have moved. Obedience was owed to his father, as jarl and as sire.
But the wolf had looked at him.
Njall came the rest of the way down the stairs, not looking at his father. Not looking at Hrolleif. He kept his eyes fixed on the trellwolf, and although she did not look at him again, her ears monitored his movements.
"So," said Hrolleif, and Njall had to look at him now, tilting his head to meet the Old Wolf's eyes. "My sister says you might be fit to join our threat, youngling. What think you?"
Sister? Njall was bewildered; the only people in the arched and gloomy hall were his father, Hrolleif, and himself, and why would the wolfheofodman be taking a woman's advice? But then the wolf turned her massive head to give him another look, this merely in passing, not the breath-stealingblow of before, and he knew that Hrolleif had meant her. His sister.
He gulped and said, "I do not know, Lord Hrolleif."
"An honest answer, at least. I do like a boy who doesn't swagger." Hrolleif stepped forward, swiftly and with such power that it took a conscious effort for Njall to hold his ground. He caught Njall's jaw in one broad hand, turning his face toward the firelight. Peeling calluses scratched Njall's face. "Handsome lad. He takes after your lady wife, I see."
"Damn you, Hrolleif--"
"Lord Gunnarr." All the easy amusement was gone from Hrolleif's voice, although his fingers stayed gentle against Njall's face. "You know the laws. You owe the wolfheall tithe, and as you yourself have said, there are not many lads of the right age in manor or village. We cannot farm when we are fighting, and if we are not fighting, you are jarl of--" His free hand rose in an expansive gesture "--nothing."
"Thorkell Blacksmith's son," Njall's father said, and Njall was embarrassed at the note of pleading in his voice.
"Is simpleminded," Hrolleif said flatly. "As this one is not. What's your name, pup?"
"Njall, Lord Hrolleif."
"Njall. You will fulfill your house's duty to the wolfheall, will you not?"
Fear blocked Njall's throat. Wolfheall. There were stories--he turned away, pulling against Hrolleif's grip, so he would not have to look into the wolfheofodman's eyes or at his father's rage. He owed a duty to his father. To the village and the manor. He was the jarl's son, raised to be heir. There was a girl, Alfleda, whom he'd half-promised to take as a paramour once he was married, and there was a betrothal to a jarl's daughter he'd never met, and there was his father's gaze, resting on him now with an iron weight.
And there were the stories of what the men of the wolfheall did with each other, with the boys who went in tithe.
But as he turned, the trellwolf lifted her head again and caught him with a gaze of such piercing, knowing sweetness that he swallowed the fear.
He couldn't stop looking at the wolf.
And he owed a duty to the wolfheall, too.
Because Hrolleif was right; if the wolfheall did not fight, there would be nothing left worth fighting for.
"Yes, Lord Hrolleif," Njall said, and his father the jarl turned away and slammed his fist against one of the great supporting beams.
"All is not lost, Gunnarr," Hrolleif said, releasing Njall and turning to go, his wolf--his sister--coming slowly to her feet to follow him. "He may not be chosen. It is a spring litter, after all, and spring litters are small." He paused, and traded a glance with the wolf. "Send him with the wagon tomorrow, when you deliver the rest of the tithe. I'll not take a boy from his mother without a kiss."
Njall swallowed again as the door closed behind Hrolleif. At another time he might have protested the implication that he was still a child, still tied to the woman's world of kitchen and solar. But now, his hands shook and his knees trembled. The more so when his father, staring at the banded door, did not raise his voice at all but only said, gently, as if to a woman, "Njall."
"I cannot stop you. You've sixteen summers, and were you not to be jarl after me, you'd be a year or three 'prenticed. But think a moment. What if that wench of yours is with child? What of your mother, and your sister, too? If I were lost on the hunt or the field, who would care for them and keep the town strong?"
"Father--" Njall said. His hands clenched in the fabric of his trews. He shook his head, but Gunnarr stayed him with a hand before he could answer, whatever he might have said.
"Think about it," Gunnarr said. "Before you sell yourself to be some ... unclanned bastard's catamite. Or worse." He shook his head, and turned to stare Njall in the face."Go to the dormitory, son. You have until morning to change your mind."
Of course Njall couldn't stay there. At this hour of the day the older boys were all at weapons-practice--as Njall should have been if his father had not chosen to try to hide him away like the child he wasn't--and the younger boys were giggling over some elaborate game among themselves. There was neither comfort nor counsel to be looked for from that quarter. He found himself shivering with delayed reaction, rubbing his hands across his face and then sniffing the fingers as if the smell of Hrolleif's wolf could have somehow transferred from skin to skin. He paced, and threw himself on the bed, and rose to pace again. He sent one of the younger boys to look for Alfleda, but the child returned to say that she had left the keep, and had said to tell Njall that she could not be found.
So was a woman's opinion made plain.
Eventually, inevitably, Njall's pacing led him out of the dormitory, across the courtyard, and up the stair toward his mother's solar. Perhaps he was not thinking clearly, but he had heard what Hrolleif had said--tomorrow, with the rest of the tithe--and, even be it womanish and weak, childish, he did not wish to leave without bidding his mother farewell.
Chosen by a wolf, he thought, and felt again the brush of the trellwolf's amber eyes.
He was halfway up the stairs when he realized that he had seen not a single servant or waiting woman--as if they had all vanished or been sent away--and that the keep, rather than bustling with dinner preparations, was silent as moonset. Hiding from Gunnarr's temper, no doubt; it could be formidable when there was cause. Njall knew the back of his father's hand well enough, although never without reason.
He had hoped that, when his own time came to inherit, he would make such a lord, so just and so strong.
Raised voices paused Njall's footsteps in the antechamber to his mother's domain. He pressed back against a tapestry, breath short, because one of the voices was his father's.
"We must send him away, Halfrid. Send him to the monks at Hergilsberg, away from Nithogsfjoll. Better a monk than a beast."
"Gunnarr." His mother's voice, smooth and level. Njall could picture her, tall and stalwart in her white kirtle and indigo surcote, her hips broad with childbearing and the corners of her eyes crinkled with smiles. It hurt to think of her, of how she smelled of barley-and-mint-water, of her fingers quick with a needle and a silver thimble. "You cannot send him away."
"I'll tell the wolfheofodman he ran."
"And when the wolf-bitch cannot find his trail over new snow? The wolfheall will not protect us if we do not tithe, my husband. As is only just. It is the law. Besides, I do not think you will convince him to flee. He knows his own honor." Gentle, implacable, and Njall felt something uncomfortable twist in his belly.
Perhaps sometimes it was wise to listen to a woman. Not that he would have to learn, unless he wasn't chosen. Wolfcarls did not marry. But for a woman's voice to speak reason when a man's counseled cowardice--there was shame.
"Damn you, Halfrid." But surrender filled Gunnarr's voice, although his next words fell cold as stones. "You know what they do to those boys."
Njall heard footsteps, his father's footsteps; he slid between the tapestry and the wall, holding his breath.
"You must warn him," she said.
The footsteps stopped shy of the door. The stone was dank against Njall's back. The tapestry smelled of cedar and smoke and mildew. "Warn him that they'll make a wolf-bitch of him? Warn him that I am handing him over to be some beast's nithling and toy? Warn him of what he already knows?"
"Hrolleif does not seem less than a man to me," Halfrid said, after a hesitation.
Njall's father snorted harsh laughter through his beard; the sound was almost a sob. Njall drove his nails into his palms, willing himself silent and still.
"Perhaps--" The sweep of her skirt across rushes. She sighed, and there was a rustle of cloth. Njall imagined she drew his father into her embrace. "Perhaps he will not be chosen. Perhaps he will be chosen by a male, and he will lead the werthreat someday himself. Perhaps he will grow to be a powerful ally to you, my lord. Your son, a wolfheofodman--"
"Perhaps is a cold word, Halfrid," Njall's father said, and then there was only silence through the doorway, until Njall slipped away.
The other older boys had returned to the dormitory, Njall's brother Jonak included, but he found he could not face them and walked out into the cold dusk instead. He crossed the courtyard once more to seek solace in the stable. His old pony Stout had been given to his sister Kathlin when he grew strong enough to handle a man's steed, but the little mare was still a friend, her shaggy wire-harsh gray mane drifting over gentle eyes. He leaned against the bar of the box she shared with two other ponies and let her drape her neck over his shoulder, steaming breath snuffing his cheek.
Kathlin found him there. She was a slip, an alf-seeming thing with the promise of their mother's looks, and all their father's temper. He wasn't surprised when she strode across the packed earth floor, stared at him for a moment, her chin lifted defiantly, and kicked him hard in the shin.
She got her hip into it. "Ow!" he protested, and was about to grab her and pick her up off her feet when she lunged forward, dissolving into sobs with the immediacyof a child. "Kathlin," he said, hopelessly. She cried harder, thumping his chest with both hands doubled up around the leather jerkin.
"You're leaving," she accused between sobs. "Father says you won't come back and I'm not to visit you. And Alfleda said she won't ever come back--"
"Did he say I was forbidden?" Njall asked, stroking her shoulders. She shook her head, her face pressed into his shirt. The tears soaked the cloth so cold bit through. Stout nickered and nosed Kathlin's hair, which made her laugh, and sniffle, finally, although she didn't step back.
He hugged her tight. She was warm, but shivering. Her bones were too big for her flesh--she was growing, and felt stretched out over them. "I have to." He brightened, though. "I'll come visit you. When I can. If they let me."
"Won't they let you?" She stepped back, smoothing her dress, self-conscious enough to give him her shoulder. Younger than he by summers, but suddenly like a woman grown. "They can't keep you locked up, can they? I mean, wolfcarls aren't supposed to have families. You can't marry, you can't ... It's in all the songs. You're just going to fight the trolls until you die."
"They may not even take me," he said, and reached out to grab her shoulders. "Come on, Kathlin," he said, when he felt that she was shivering still. "Come inside before Nurse finds you missing, or you freeze. They probably won't take me. And if they don't, I'll be home by harvest, and our debt to the wolfheall will be paid."
She glanced at him under her lashes, her eyes startlingly blue. "Promise?"
"Promise," he said, and squeezed her tight before he hurried her inside.
He slept little and uneasily, rising well before dawn to wash and dress. His father had not sought him out,neither to tell him he was being sent to Hergilsberg--and Njall knew, with some surprise, that his mother was right: if his father had proposed that plan, he would have refused--nor to speak with him plainly, as man to man, about the customs of the wolfheall. Njall was not sure if he was glad or sorry, as he was not sure if he was glad or sorry that his father had not come to bid him farewell. The one thing he did know was that he would not have his house's duty to the wolfheall unfulfilled through his cowardice. No matter what they did to him, it would be better than knowing himself craven.
The tithe-wagon was in the courtyard, thralls loading it with sacks of turnips, barrels of salted herring. Halfrid stood beside the great, patient horses, stroking their noses while the tired-eyed wagoner swallowed the last of a hasty breakfast.
"Mother," Njall said awkwardly, and she turned and smiled at him, her eyes as warm and steady as ever.
"Are you ready, Njall?"
"I suppose," he said and then in a low-voiced rush, "Ready for what?"
"To attend the tithing. To become a man of the werthreat if you should be chosen. To defend Nithogsfjoll, keep and steading, with your life." She sighed and pushed an escaped tendril of wheat-fair hair behind her ear. "It is not the path to manhood I would have chosen for you, but it is an honorable path."
"Father said ... ." But he could not speak the word "nithling" to his mother. He blushed, and mumbled at his boots, "Father said it was my choice, but I fear I have chosen wrong."
The thralls were almost finished loading the wagon, the wagoner making some joke and swinging onto the wagon-seat. Njall looked up and saw his mother's face grim and rather sad. "You've heard stories, of course. Boys talk."
"Yes. But it's not--you said it was honorable, to go to the werthreat. I could protect you. I could--"
She kissed his brow swiftly and said, "You must decide what your honor is, Njall, and hold to it. I know men who have gone to the wolfheall and made a warrior's life there. You can too. Or you can come home, and we will have you."
"Father won't," Njall said.
"Your father has his own trolls to hunt," Halfrid said, and might have continued if the wagoner had not interrupted when she took a breath.
"Begging pardon, Lady Halfrid, but we haven't got all day. They like you to be timely at the wolfheall, so they do."
"Go on with you, then," Halfrid said to Njall. "You have your mother's blessing."
"Thank you," Njall said and climbed up into the wagon.
All the way down from keep to wolfheall, he pondered his mother's words. You must decide what your honor is. But honor was honor, wasn't it? It wasn't something you could pick and choose about. Yet she would not have wasted her breath with meaningless words.
But they reached the great barred gate of the wolfheall's wall before he had puzzled out her meaning.
Even as the wagoner was drawing his horses to a stop, the gate was opening, and a man came out, his hair iron-black and his face like something carved from flint, a trellwolf beside him that seemed the size of a bear. Even the great carthorses shied and stamped at the sight of that monster, and Njall's palms grew clammy. This wolf's eyes were more orange than those of Hrolleif's bitch and his heavy pelt rippled like water over his muscles. Njall recognized the man, just as he had recognized Hrolleif: Grimolfr, the wolfjarl, who ruled the wolfheall as Njall's father ruled the keep. Njall swallowed hard.
"So," said Grimolfr, while his wolf sat beside him and let his tongue loll. "You are Njall Gunnarson. It seems I owe Hrolleif a forfeit. I wagered you would not appear this morning."
Njall slid down from the wagon. "My house honors its duty to the wolfheall," he said.
"As well it should. Did you bring anything?"
"Good. That's less we have to get rid of. Come along."
He turned on his heel and strode into the wolfheall compound, calling for the thralls to come unload the wagon. His wolf moved with him as swiftly and surely as his shadow. Njall followed him, because whatever his honor might be, it certainly didn't include succumbing to the childish impulse to plant his feet and refuse to budge.
The wolfheall wasn't a grand stone keep like his father's. The walled compound was halfway flagged--and a good thing, too, because the feet of men and trellwolves had churned what wasn't paved into a springtide mire--but the central building was a roundhall in the old style, wooden, roofed in slates, a thick stream of smoke ascending from its center. The whole bustled with activity: wolves and men and thralls at work all about. Njall saw two men enter at the postern gate, a pole slung over their shoulders with a dead buck dangling from it. Two wolves paced them, one a red so pale he was almost tawny, the other dark as smoke, like Grimolfr's gigantic male. Will my wolf be gray? Njall wondered. If I am chosen?
He snuck a glance sideways at Grimolfr's male, and wondered if it was the father of Hrolleif's bitch's pups. And then he thought of the shocking things that were whispered by older boys to younger in the dormitories at night, thought of his father's brutal words; he looked up at Grimolfr and blanched at his imaginings.
"Vigdis won't whelp tonight," Grimolfr said, without returning the stare. "Tomorrow, perhaps. Have you eaten, pup?"
The wolfjarl's voice was not unkind, and Njall decided to risk honesty. "I haven't been hungry, sir. Are ..."
"Speak, whelp. Wolves say what they think when they think it; we have our politics, but they're not devious ones."
"I was going to ask where you were taking me."
"To Ulfmaer, the housecarl, and his brother. They have charge of pups, wolf and man, until they're bonded. Any other questions?"
Njall had thousands, but he settled for the first one to come to mind. "Is Vigdis the name of Hrolleif's bitch--I mean, sister?"
"One of her names," Grimolfr said, unexpectedly soft and fond, allowing a little smile to curl his lips under his beard. He did glance down then, and Njall found himself pinned on the man's dark-brown gaze as surely as he'd been pinned on Vigdis'. "My brother is called Skald. His own name--" The wolfjarl gestured, and Skald turned his head, staring into Njall's eyes with his own sunset-colored ones.
Njall smelled ice and cold wind, a musk like serpents, the dark metal of old blood. "Like a kill at midwinter," he said, coughing, and then realized what it meant. "Their names are smells."
"Aye," Grimolfr said, sounding pleased although he did not smile again.
"And Vigdis? What is her name?"
It was the scent of a wet dawn in late autumn, bare trees and pale sunrise and the leaf-mold sharp and crisp at the back of Njall's sinuses. He drew a deep, hard breath, and sighed.
"You like that, whelp?"
"Yes. Sir." No, no point in lying. None at all.
"Hmh." A grunt, a dog-sound, almost animal. Njall startled, but Grimolfr didn't seem to notice. Instead, he jerked his chin at the buck, dripping icicles of blood from a slashed throat as its bearers went past, the wolfcarls who bore it nodding respect to their jarl. "Well, you'd best eat when that game is served, pup. We hunt tonight and you'll need your strength."
They had all but crossed the yard. Njall sighed relief when they entered the wind-shadow of the roundhall. "Hunt, sir? What do we hunt at night?"
Grimolfr paused with his hand on the great copper-sheathed door. "Foolish puppy," he said, and showed Njall his teeth. "We hunt trolls."
Njall was relieved that the meat he was served for noon meal was cooked--and not, he judged, actually the buck that the wolfcarls had brought home that day. This was seasoned meat, hung until tender and roasted sweet. The wolfheall's cook knew his--or her--business.
Njall shared his trencher with a slight blond boy, Brandr, who'd arrived a few days earlier and who was full of gossip and good cheer. There were six boys in all, and Njall was sure that Ulfmaer thought that too few to give Vigdis' pups good selection. The stout gray-haired housecarl traded doubtful glances with his gray-faced trellwolf throughout the meal, his uncertainty making Njall feel gangly and grimy and much younger than his years--but the hall itself wasn't unlike his father's hall, except larger, and wood instead of stone, and the dogs gnawing bones and squabbling over their portions alongside the tables weren't dogs at all but wolves as big as men.
Njall did notice that Grimolfr sat at one end of the long table and Hrolleif at the other, just as Njall's father and mother sat--and that Skald stood guard over Vigdis while she lay by Hrolleif's chair and ate, and permitted no other wolf or man near her. Nor was it lost on him that the fond looks Grimolfr sent the length of the table included not just wolf and bitch but red-bearded Hrolleif as well.
Njall found himself pushing the meat on the trencher over to Brandr's side. Brandr accepted with a glance and a shrug. Njall watched Brandr make short work of the venison, because it allowed him not to look at Hrolleif, until Ulfmaer's knotted hand descended on his shoulder.
"Njall. Nerves about the hunt?"
"Yes," Njall lied, twisting his head to look up at the housecarl.
Ulfmaer smiled, a gap-toothed grin, and squeezed his shoulder. "We'll find you weapons after the meal," he said. "In the meantime, you must eat, lad." Lad, and not pup. That one word unknotted the tangle of fear in Njall's breast a little. "I know something you can think on to distract yourself."
"What?" Not meaning to sound so eager, but there it was.
"If you are chosen--and Vigdis has at least four pups in her, so the odds are good--you'll need a name."
"A--sir, a name?"
Brandr elbowed him. "Idiot. You don't think they're all born named 'Wolf.' Ow!"--as Ulfmaer cuffed the back of his head.
"Respect for your packmates, whelp," he said, and stomped off.
Brandr waited until he was out of earshot and then slid Njall a sly look, and grinned. "Old bastard. You know Hroi's his second wolf?"
"You can have more than one?" Njall blinked, surprised.
"Even wolves get killed by trolls," Brandr said. He made a long arm that would have gotten Njall or his brother clouted, and ripped a wing off the goose three places down the table. "I hear his first wolf was a bitch, and he misses it. Makes him cranky."
"Oh," said Njall, and blushed. "What will you ... I mean, have you thought of a name yet?"
Brandr made an expressive face. "My uncle's a wolfcarl--not here, in the wolfheall at Arakensberg. He made me promise I'd call myself Frithulf, after a friend of his who died."
"And will you?"
"I promised," Brandr said with a shrug, and Njall was relieved to realize that meant yes. Maybe honor would not be so difficult to hold here after all.
He was still thinking about that, chin on his fist and brow furrowed, when Brandr nudged him. There was--not a commotion, but a disturbance--at the head of the table, and Brandr bounced on the bench. Njall looked up; a tall spidery dark man was rising from his seat. "Skjaldwulf,"Brandr hissed, leaned so close to Njall's ear that Njall could feel him jitter. "Skjaldwulf Snow-Soft, they call him. We're in luck."
"Soft! That's a name for a wolfcarl?"
Brandr snorted. "Soft as a knife in the ribs. He nearly never talks," he explained. "But he can sing."
The tall man pushed black braids behind his shoulders and picked his way over snoring wolves on the rush-and-fur-strewn floor. When he had found a clear place to stand by the fire, he scuffed his feet wide and settled comfortably, eyelids lowered. One of the older tithe-boys brought him a horn of ale. He quaffed it and handed it back, and took a deep breath, running his gaze across the wolfcarls and tithe-boys and thralls spread around the hall.
The room went silent, as Njall was accustomed when someone was about to declaim. And Skjaldwulf Snow-Soft spoke in a resonant, carrying baritone that sounded as if it rose from the depths of the earth, carrying smoke and rain.
"Winter is long, and the nights are cold. There was a time when men maintained mere dogs to guard their cattle, when there were no wolfheallan and no wolfcarls, when trellwolves were troth-enemies of true-men. When fell trolls, terrible tyrants, walked in winter as they willed it, and our forefathers shuddered in shallow scrapes. This was the time of Thorsbaer Thorvaldson, who first knew a konigenwolf and swore to serve her for salvation.
"I took this tale from Red Sturla in his age, and as he told it me I tell it you. This was the time--"
Njall listened, enraptured. There had been better skalds at his father's hall, now and again, but not many--and there had been worse, as well. Skjaldwulf's voice rang like a brazen bell when he raised it, and the alliteration tolled from his tongue with heavy power. And Njall had not heard this tale before.
Skjaldwulf--Snow-Soft, and now Njall saw another reason for the kenning-name, for he was subtle and chill in his wit, as well--told it with precision and deftness. How Thorsbaer Thorvaldson had been cast out for sorcery, forplaying at women's magic, and how he had found--alone--a daytime encampment of trolls.
It would have been worth his life to attack them. And he could not return to his jarl's keep, even with a message of grave urgency--he'd die on the point of a spear before he spoke three words.
But perhaps he could send a message somehow, or raise a warning. Perhaps he could spoil their ambush, when night came.
And with sunset--not that the sun ever rose but briefly, so deep in winter--the wolves came. When he saw that they had come to hunt the trolls, Thorsbaer Thorvaldson fell in with the pack.
And the pack, to his shock, permitted it. He'd half-expected to be pulled down with the trolls, treated as prey. Instead, he found himself moving with the wolves, dreaming--so said Skjaldwulf--with the wolves.
Until all the trolls were dead.
Thorsbaer's jarl would not take him back on the strength of that. Most certainly not with a snarling she-wolf by his side, when he was already suspected of sorcery. He had lived with the wild packs until he died, and fought the trolls on behalf of men who would not have him.
But something strange had happened.
As the pack settled close, and Thorsbaer spoke for them, and it became noticed that trolls did not travel unmolested through their territory to attack the human steadings--other men joined him. Disaffected men, younger sons, disgraced men. Men who practiced unmasculine arts--weaving, seithr--or some who were lovers of men. They came among the wolf-pack, and to Thorsbaer's rude cottage they attached a timber hall.
And the wolves chose from among them.
And together they hunted the trolls.
Ulfmaer and Hroi took the six tithe-boys out to the practice-field that afternoon, accompanied by four young men only a year or so older and three amiable half-grown wolves. They'd be bonding soon, Brandr told Njall in an undertone, and then the odd boy out would have to decide what to do.
"Won't he go home?" Njall said.
"Maybe, maybe not," Brandr said with another of his expressive shrugs. "I wouldn't."
"Why not?" And then he caught himself. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"
"It's all right. I'm no jarl's son, Njall Gunnarson, and I can do a good sight better for myself in a wolfheall than I ever could on my father's steading."
"They'll let you stay? Even if you don't bond?"
"Who says I won't bond?" Brandr said, grinning, and Njall couldn't help grinning back.
He found he knew rather more about the use of the quarterstaff than most of the boys, and remembered the way Brandr had said, I'm no jarl's son, not resentfully but with resignation. "You've been trained with the axe, lad?" Ulfmaer asked him.
"Yes, sir," Njall said.
"Well, that's a mercy. I'm always afraid these clumsy young idiots will lop their own ears off." And he glowered at the older boys, who grinned back affectionately. "For today, though, will you help the other lads? I hate to lose boys before a tithing."
"Does it happen often?" Njall asked, pleased that his voice didn't squeak.
Ulfmaer exchanged a look with Hroi--Njall had noticed how frequently that happened, even though Hroi, unlike Vigdis the day before, did not watch Ulfmaer constantly. He had his own work with the half-grown pups. But trellwolf and man always knew where the other was, and they were never out of each other's line of sight. Ulfmaer sighed. "'Tis no tourney you go to tonight, youngling. The trolls do not care if you be unpracticed. But Grimolfr says we can'tprotect those who must learn to protect others, and I fear he's right."
"I'll help," Njall promised, wanting suddenly to make Ulfmaer look less tired, less worried.
"That's a good lad," Ulfmaer said, and wheeled, bellowing, "Fastvaldr, an axe is not a flyswatter!"
Njall went to help the other tithe-boys.
They were inclined to be uncomfortable at first, almost resentful, but he deliberately let the smallest of them, Hlothvinr, catch him a glancing blow alongside his skull, and grinned and said, "Perfect. But you'll have to hit me harder than that." And the other boys laughed and listened more willingly.
They were all limping and favoring bruises by the time the lengthening shadows prompted Ulfmaer to call a halt. He and Hroi herded them back to the roundhall and, unyielding to blandishments and protests, into the bathhouse. "The first lesson to be learned, boys. The wolves can smell you. It's only polite of you to try to smell good."
"Who says they don't like the smell of honest sweat?" Brandr said, and Hroi shook himself with such vigor that all of them laughed.
"They do, Brandr Quick-Tongue" said Ulfmaer, "so scrub up."
The wolfheall's bathhouse was bigger than that of the manor; Njall guessed that maybe half the werthreat could bathe at once, if they crowded on the benches. The ten boys were able to spread out more than that, but Njall still found himself grateful that Ulfmaer did not leave, but stripped to his breechclout and stumped up and down the aisle scattering water on the rocks to make steam, grumbling at them to scrub behind their ears, and passing pitchers with snide comments: "Yes, you do have to get your hair wet, Svanrikr. Otherwise you can't get it clean."
Njall shared with Brandr and one of the older boys, Sigmundr: the Stone Sigmundr, a good byname for a lad as self-contained as a keep's high walls. Sigmundr was silent except for politely answering when Brandr asked him questions.Njall concentrated on washing, and stealing sideways glances at the scars that marked Ulfmaer's torso, forearms, and thighs. Scars that looked like the marks of teeth and claws.
There were clean clothes when they were done, and then back to the hall for supper. The food was again plentiful and well-cooked, and even nerves could not prevent Njall from eating heartily. Brandr sat beside him again and told him the names of the werthreat and their trellwolves, at least as many of them as he knew. Njall listened with half an ear, but mostly watched the trellwolves, red and gray and dark brindle, eyes golden, amber, orange--there were even three or four wolves whose eyes were almost green. He wondered if those wolves all had the same father and asked Brandr, "Is Vigdis the only bitch in the wolfheall?"
Brandr snorted into his ale. "It's your own wolfheall--you've only lived nigh it your whole life."
Njall hunched a shoulder uncomfortably. "My father doesn't like it spoken of."
Brandr's eyebrows went up, but he said only, "Well, Vigdis isn't the only bitch in the wolfheall. She's just the konigenwolf--the top bitch."
"Oh," said Njall, and couldn't help his eyes going from Hrolleif to Grimolfr. Happily, Brandr didn't notice. He said, "There's three or four other bitches, I think. I know the pups who came out with us today were whelped by Ingrun," and he nodded down the table to a young man, blond and ruddy-faced and laughing at something his trencher-mate had said. "Randulfr's sister. We're lucky we're getting a shot at Vigdis' pups."
Njall watched a moment, to see if he could tell which of the wolves near Randulfr was Ingrun. And yes, a tawny-gray wolf, gnawing on a deer-rib, looked up at Randulfr just as he leaned back from the table to pass her a tidbit. Brandr prattled on beside him. Njall looked at Hrolleif, and then at Vigdis and Skald, and knew that Brandr was right.
They set out across the snow at moonrise, well-armed and outfitted as became warriors, all afoot, including Hrolleif and Grimolfr, because even battle-hardened horses would not stand before a wyvern. They divided into three parties and cast out: Njall's group included Ulfmaer and Hrolleif and traveled north and east toward the rising moon, over snow so cold it creaked under their boots.
Each man had a wolf beside him except Hrolleif--Vigdis being too gravid to hunt--and the four unbonded boys. Besides Njall, there were Brandr Quick-Tongue, Svanrikr--whom Brandr called Un-Wise, but not where Svanrikr could hear him--and the Stone Sigmundr--and one of the three adolescent wolves, Eitri, although Njall noticed that the men and grown wolves kept the boys and pup in the center of the group, and Eitri did not look at Sigmundr the way Hroi looked at Ulfmaer.
The trees they moved through were still gaunt, although the tips of their branches swelled with the promise of spring and life. After a little, it struck Njall that they passed through the dark with very little conversation--the wolves wove among the men, ranging out and back, and the men cast out among the trees but seemed to find each other effortlessly. Njall fingered the edge of the axe slung across his chest, his feet slipping slightly in his too-new boots, and realized that he was moving with the rest, as much a part of the pattern as a goose flying in a wedge. He could smell the night around him--the snow and the dark and the sap running up branches, the first green tang of spring. He could smell Sigmundr beside him, smell the wolves and the men, each individually, smell Brandr's sour fear and his determination, smell his own confidence--for, unlike the other young men, he was a jarl's son and this was not his first time in battle--and he thought if he closed his eyes and concentrated, he might be able to pick out the scent of the moonlight on snow. Moving, all moving, like a great, coordinated dance, and he bit his lip to keep from laughing in delight.
He glanced around, wildly aware of the sound of his own heartbeat, and found Ulfmaer at his elbow. "You feelit," Ulfmaer whispered, barely more than the motion of his lips, and Njall nodded, yes.
"It's the pack," Ulfmaer said, his eyes glimmering excitement in the sharp blue moonlight, where everything laid hard-edged shadows. "You have the pack-sense already. Aye, lad, you'll bond, and well--"
His head came up, as if linked to Hroi's, and Njall smelled it the same moment--a sharp, bitter odor, wood-smoke and oil of terebinth, and that musk as of serpents that had underlaid Skald's name. Ulfmaer stepped back and put his shoulder to Njall.
"The scouts have cornered it. Time for that axe," the housecarl said, unnecessarily, as--somewhere in the darkness--a trellwolf howled.
The leather axe-bindings were sticky on Njall's palms when he shoved his hands out the slits in his mittens and gripped the weapon. His father preferred the shield-wall--a shocking weight of charging men with their bucklers interlocked, swords at the ready, a rank of spears behind--but Njall had learned axe too, and he believed Ulfmaer when the old man said that swords were no good for troll-necks. Troll-necks needed hewing.
Njall had heard stories of this as well, of course. Villages raided, the men strung up with their guts in puddles on the ground and left to watch as the women, still alive and screaming, were eaten--although nothing like that had happened in his lifetime. The wolfheallan stood between men and the cold North, a thin determined line, and Njall had never seen a troll, much less a wyvern, and had never spoken to anyone who had seen one--before today. He tightened his grip, and the wolfcarls and their wolves moved forward, toward another eager hunting cry.
Two wolves stood guard before a cliff face and a thicket, crouched low, obviously well back from their quarry and waiting for the rest of the pack. Njall had seen wood wolves, trellwolves' smaller cousins, hunt elk, and dogs bring deer to a stand; this was no different from hunting deer behind his father's rangy coarse-furred deerhounds, except that arrowswould not pierce trellhide, or a wyvern's scales. This was killing that had to be done at hand, with jaws and axes.
The stories had not prepared him for the long quick shape that slid out of the darkness as they approached, snow hissing against its belly scales as against the runners of a sleigh, small wings paddling the air frantically as its head swayed and snapped on a long neck, lithe and ungainly as a goose and with the same beady, evil-tempered eyes. Njall's eyes had adjusted to the dark, and a quarter-moon shone bright on all that snow. He saw the wyvern clearly, and he saw the stumplike humanish shape beside it.
"Only one?" he asked Ulfmaer stupidly.
Ulfmaer grunted. "One's enough. Come on, lad, it's on our side," and stamped forward with Hroi on his left hand and his axe unlimbered in his right.
Njall hesitated. He glanced over his shoulder, saw the Stone Sigmundr start forward in his footsteps and Brandr Quick-Tongue drawn back, away from the sally, by a wolfcarl whose name Njall didn't know. "Sometimes they circle," the wolfcarl said, and Njall understood the wisdom of it; some would fight, and the others would watch, so that the cliff against which the wolves had cornered the troll did not become the cliff against which the wolfcarls were brought to bay.
Hefting his axe, he went to cover Ulfmaer's flank, and felt Sigmundr and the two wolfcarls whose brothers still crouched, grinning death up at the troll, start forward.
Five men, three wolves, one troll and one wyvern. And the only thing that saved them was the pack-sense, the knowledge of where the wolf-brothers would be, smiling, snarling, dancing their dance a half-step faster than the snakelike pattern of the wyvern's flat-iron head. They wove before it, harried it, leaped one another stiff-kneed and came down in unexpected places, decoyed it away from the cliff while the other four men faced the troll and Njall stalked, waiting for the wyvern to overreach itself, to turn its back from the wall, to give him a chance to move inside that weaving net of teeth.
He heard bronze clank on steel and knew the others had engaged the troll--the gross creature with its stony, knotted hide wielded a bronze axe twice the size of Njall's--but his whole attention was for the wyvern, its pale silhouette dangerously indistinct in snow and moonlight, its mouth snapping after the trellwolves as full of teeth as a lamprey's.
It did not seem overly impressed with Njall. Among the smallest of the pack, after all, and he didn't dart in, snapping, and dart out again while sharp teeth snicked shut on cold air and the mist of panting breath. He just crouched, coiled, waiting, ready to spring, and did not take his eyes off the wyvern even when he heard an impossibly fast passage of arms beyond, heard the troll ululate in agony and a wolfcarl shout in pain. The sickening snap was not branches--
Njall did not shift his gaze. He saw Hroi crouch, heard him yowl more like a cat than a wolf, saw him throw himself at the wyvern's throat. And Njall knew in his bones, the pattern of pack, that Hroi's attack was the distraction, and that his own place--
He charged, biting back a shout, and felt a trellwolf running at his side, shoulder to his hip where he could know its presence without having to look. Njall threw himself forward, boots slipping on snow and the slick dead grass and leaves beneath, and swung his axe high and boldly with all the force of his shoulder and his mass behind it. At his side the wolf leaped, and Hroi snarled and lunged at the wyvern's head this time.
Njall's axe hit hard, bit scale just in front of the wyvern's haunch, slipped down and sideways. He turned the cut into a looping curve, kept the momentum, brought the blade up and around again and back into the same place, just as the trellwolf's jaws closed on the wyvern's hamstring. The thing could not shriek; snakes have no voice. But the little wings beat as if it could fly and it hissed like a steaming kettle forgotten over the fire. The troll shouted once more, and there was a sound of metal on bone and of bone breaking and the blood was hot, musty and serpent-sharp over Njall's hands,his arms, salty and thin across his face, in his mouth, and the wolves were snarling, and he hacked again and again as Hroi got the wyvern's neck between his jaws and dragged its head away from Njall's back, and this time the hot gush of blood across his arms brought slick, wrist-thick ropes of intestine with it.
If Hroi hadn't grabbed Njall's arm, in jaws that could snap a bull's leg like a brittle reed, and hauled him safely clear, Njall would have still been under it when it came down, because he didn't think to stop hacking.
Ulfmaer died two hours after they travoised him to the Nithogsfjoll wolfheall, surprising no one. The blood staining his beard had been red, bright with froth; the snapped ribs had driven into his lungs. Hroi lay beside the body in its place against the wall of the roundhall. The old wolf's chin rested in the groove between Ulfmaer's thigh and groin, Ulfmaer's fingers softly curling across the mammoth skull. Hroi's green-gold eyes were watchful; he would not bear the body touched. Not on that night. Not until the morning.
The pack gave him his mourning in private, and took theirs into the snow, around a bonfire built on the flagstones. Njall held warmed ale in a horn and barely touched it; he'd seen death before, of course, and death in battle was kinder than the death of age and illness and blindness and fouling oneself in senility, so he knew his sorrow for pure selfishness at having lost his family and his new teacher and guardian, all in one day.
He didn't speak to them, but he was grateful when Sigmundr and Brandr came and sat on either side of him, and leaned their shoulders against his for warmth. Sigmundr didn't talk much--just helped him stare into the fire. Brandr told the dirtiest jokes he'd ever heard, under his breath, in a monotone, until even Sigmundr couldn't quite keep his lips from cracking into a smile.
"How many boys were tithed with you, Sigmundr?" Njall asked, finally, when Brandr paused for breath.
The older boy sipped his mulled wine and shook his head. "Nine," he said, his eyes on Eitri and one of his brothers, where they lay staring into the fire.
"But there are four of you--" Brandr, who stopped himself short, and left Njall infinitely grateful that Brandr had been just a little bit faster to be stupid this time.
He felt Sigmundr shrug. "We have been unlucky. Ulfmaer said that it's a bad tithe when they lose one boy before bonding, a very bad tithe when they lose three."
Njall didn't speak, but the other two boys must have felt him shiver, because both of them pressed close. He was grateful, actually, that they were not put to bed and expected to sleep that night, because a great loneliness welled up in him when he looked across the fire at the drinking men and thought of his sister and parents warm in their beds, of the boys in the dormitory. Homesick, cub? he thought scornfully, and knuckled his eyes. He didn't think Brandr noticed.
The men were still drinking and the wolves were still whining when Skald emerged from the warmth of the round-hall to bring Hrolleif and Grimolfr within.
Vigdis' cubs--two gray dog-pups, a cream-colored dog-pup, and a bitch-pup brindled black and red like the fabled Tyger--were all born hearty and hale by dawn. "A bitch," Brandr said with a bitten lip when Hrolleif brought the boys in to meet the blind, snuffling velvet grubs, and glanced sideways at Svanrikr. "I wonder who she'll choose."
Svanrikr shrugged. Njall looked into Vigdis' laughing, self-satisfied eyes and said loyally, "She's the prettiest."
"It's good you think so," Svanrikr Un-Wise snickered, tilting his head so Njall could just hear him. "So're you."
Njall didn't dare hit him. The wolves were watching.