In chorus, the dogs howl. The sledge dogs chained out in the yard and the watchdogs on the wall, the pampered sleeve dogs of the Distaff Side, the huntsman's terriers and the kitchen mutts: howling. Every four-legged canine within hearing gives tongue, a rising, chaotic cacophony that bristles the hair on the back of Jared's neck and sets every man and woman in the hall on edge. The sound loosens swords in scabbards, sends hands to light the primed braziers and torches, and brings the First Year of the Warrior's Side to their inexperienced feet. It's only Autumn. Ice is drifting in the harbor and the cows are already in the byres, but the last ships for the Southern Lands are still lingering at their moorings and the Watchers at the Wall are not yet standing double shifts. If the howl warns of Skjald, blood shedders, the ice harriers, winter's bane, they're unseasonably early.
In his great chair by the fire, Jared does not stir. It's to him the grizzled warriors and the young First Years look to take their cue, and so, unhurried, unworried, Jared sips his beer and cocks an eyebrow at the dog standing at his feet.
His team leader, the dog who has led him safely over the ice and safely back for four years of her life, does not look back. She's watching the great door, stiff legged and bristling between Jared's knees, with an uneasy whine to her voice which means neither Skjald nor Friend. In the fireplace, the little terrier yaps as his paws spin the roasting wheel, and Ghenna crouches back against Jared's legs even as her voice falls to a breath. But the Watchers on the Wall are not sounding the horns of the alarm, and the high, spine-chilling screams of the Skjald cannot be heard over that fading howl. Whatever is coming, it's not Winter.
It's Autumn. Jared's sword rests by his elbow, not yet on his back. He reaches for it slowly and deliberately, and around the hall men's hands fall from their sword hilts and women loosen their bows. When the great door to the hall opens, it's to the reindeer hide bundled, furred shapes of a Sami hunting skein, far from home and unexpectedly laden.
By the time Ingreaux of the Great Doe River tribe tugs back her hood, the sword Icebane lies bare across Jared's knees and his hands rest flat-palmed over her broad blade, a ceremonial salute from one warrior to another. Ingreaux nods at him, friend to friend, and then she dips her head, subject to liege. Only then, palm up, does she offer Jared the sledge. Tribute.
For a moment, when the great door had opened, Jared had thought they'd brought him furs heaped in an untidy, bloody pile. But as the iced runners of the sledge grind towards him over the bare stone of the hall floor and he sees the upturned paw hanging loose, he thinks instead that the Sami have brought him fur unskinned, a great otter or a grey-pelted summer bear. Although by the hush that runs around the warriors, by the murmur of curiosity and shock that follows the sledge, he has to be wrong. Whatever it is strapped down and bleeding, it's nothing they've seen before.
When he can see, even he cannot hide his astonishment. It's a NorteWulf, a direwolf, myth made real in his own hall. Ice-runners, cloud-biters, rumoured to be almost the only creatures that can take on hunting Skjald unaided and win; the giant wolves are the stuff of a bard's weaving or a child's story-dreams. To be brought low, Jared thinks, this one must have been old, so old it had come south to die, although no saga Jared has ever heard suggests anything other than the fatal frozen waste of the furthest North as their home. Beyond the lands of the Skjald, where no human has ever walked: so far beyond the Wall that for all Jared knows the sun there might shine all year around and the springs always run fresh and clear.
Even dead, the wolf is an awe inspiring sight. Laid out nose to hindquarters, it measures Jared's own height on the sledge.
Only when the Sami bring the sledge to the fire does Jared see, under the thick grey and white brindled fur, the rise and fall of the wolf's ribcage. It's alive, this wolf, although it breathes too fast and too shallow for any healthy beast. Chains bind it down, the vicious cold of the metal biting into the thick fur and the flesh under, and the wolf's body has the stiff rigidity of any creature near death. Bloodied and bound, its muzzle is still and its swollen, closed eyes with their incongruous long eyelashes do not even twitch. The great dome of its skull is short-furred and elegant, its ears falling soft against the iced wooden runners. Built for power and endurance, this wolf is nothing like the lithe, slender snow-wolves Jared's used to seeing on the ice, with their light-stepping paws and lolling smiles. This is a direwolf, a NorteWulf, majestic even near death, deep furred, heavy jawed, capable of pulling down a white bear alone or swimming a mile-wide ice-wracked lead without flinching. In all his twenty six summers, Jared may have seen two direwolves before this one, and those imprecisely, from afar, and in winter.
He looks up. He says, "Why?"
Even in the warmth of the hall, Ingreaux has not removed her outer parka, but under three layers of fur and reindeer hide her shoulders lift. "You have enough furs," she says.
"So you thought to bring me one with teeth," Jared says.
The warriors in the hall are almost silent, and Jared can feel eyes follow him as he walks around the sledge. There's an iron collar around the wolf's neck and the muzzle is bolted around jaws that could span Jared's forearm and crack it in the blink of an eye. Blood-scabbed, the fine fur of the wolf's snout is harsh. In his moccasins, Jared's soft-footed and quiet, but it's only once he's circled the sledge that he realises, with a shock that skitters down his spine cold as a shattered icicle, that the wolf is watching him back through barely slitted eyes. It's an incurious, dead stare, as if the wolf is looking past Jared to a horizon beyond the stone walls of the great hall.
They're strongly territorial, wolves, and they mate for life. By all the tides of its life, this one should be running far beyond the Wall. It's four hundred miles too far south and near death. Under the mat of fur, it's far too thin, and one of its legs lies at an obscene angle against the sledge runner.
"How long?" Jared asks.
Ingreaux shrugs. "Seven days."
He should put it out of its misery. Chained down as it is, the wolf's head is bent over the vulnerable throat, but a knife slipped between its second and third ribs will cut clean and fatal into the heart. But it's a magnificent beast, and Jared's fingers are clenched on his dagger as he braces himself and leans forward. Behind him, the fire flares. Light runs down the line of the blade, and glints from the wolf's slitted eyes.
It's watching him, now.
There's no expectation in those eyes. There's a dull resignation that knows exactly what the knife means.
With an effort so great the wolf shakes, it rolls its head. Fresh blood oozes, sluggish, around the bars of the muzzle and the chains that hold it down strain against the bolts. Under Jared's arm, the wolf bares the soft fur of its throat, and waits for death. Just as, exactly as, a crippled warrior on bloodied ice asks for the mercy stroke. Jared's indrawn breath sounds harsh in the quiet. It's a wolf fit for the Gods, this beast, a tale for the bards in his father's painted halls.
Slowly, his eyes not leaving the wolf's, Jared stands up. Sheathes the dagger. He says, "Fetch the blacksmith. I want those chains struck. Hot water. Linen. Now."
The wolf shuts its eyes. But it's still breathing.
Against the dismayed shuffle in the hall, Jared raises his voice. He says, "A toast to Fenrir, for the wolf's life." He puts out a hand for his drinking horn. It's Gunter who stands first, but the warriors are swift to follow: Alona with her long plait, Alvez, his dark skin wrapped in furs even in the warmth of the hall. Mathew, Sven, and from the Distaff Side his sister Meghan with her long plaits and her jewelled horn and her household with her.
"Weis," Jared says shortly, drains the horn, and as the cry of "Heil" goes up, he smashes the horn into the fire as he would do for any other binding treaty. His oath on the wolf's life.
There are long hours, that night and the nights that follow, when he thinks he'll be foresworn.
It's not just the bones, the broken leg and the snapped ribs he only discovers by accident. Not the spear-thrust in the shoulder that brought the wolf down, nor the sticky, wet shallow heave of its breath nor the infected sores where the chains held it still. Nor the bitten out arrow-wounds. It won't eat, Jared's wolf. It won't drink, for all that its nostrils flare when the boy brings fresh water, the first night. Lying on a pallet in front of the fire in Jared's room, the wolf has chosen death.
He thinks it dozes. Sometimes, as he bathes the cuts and changes the dressings on its wounds, brings bowls of steaming mustard water for its breathing, combs out the tangles in its heavy coat and assesses the scarred and battered skin under the fur that speaks soundlessly of years-old and years-long battles, Jared knows it's awake. Feverish, half-aware, its presence is as clear to him as his own. More often, it's somewhere else, dreaming not as dogs do with their scrambling paws and panted breath but deep and long and absorbed, halfway already to the warrior's halls in Valhalla. Never, never, does it acknowledge by the twitch of a paw or the flicker of an eye Jared's presence.
been his father's second born son for twenty one summers, Jarl in his
own right for four. When Jared speaks, his hall falls silent. When he
draws his sword, his warband unsheathe their weapons and wait on his
word, they too his to wield. But the wolf ignores him as if he's nothing.
The next time the wolf wakes, it's with Jared's hand thrust down its throat. By the sudden, tense stillness of its body, Jared knows it's awake and aware. When he looks down, it's looking back at him, his wolf, filmy dull eyes rolled back. So little left in them even of the resignation he'd seen three nights before. The wolf could take Jared's sword hand off with one snap of its teeth, and for a moment Jared wishes, fiercely, that it would. Anything other than the resigned, lax loll of its jaw, although Jared knows that the moment he moves the wolf will cough up the bread and water he's pushing down its throat.
In that moment, he hates the wolf for its passive acceptance of death. A warrior's death should be a thing of sagas, not this slow fading on a blood-stained pallet in front of the fire.
"You bitch," Jared says clearly, to the green sliver of the wolf's eyes.
He drags his hand free and slaps, hard, against the wolf's muzzle. The force of it rocks the wolf's head against the straw. "You scared little bitch," Jared says, and does it again, and he could swear there's a glint of something - interest, curiosity? - in the wolf's eyes.
He's so angry he doesn't think. He heaves the wolf over onto its back, heavy and loose-limbed, leans a knee onto its belly and bends forward. Just as he's seen an alpha snow-wolf own his pack mates, Jared fastens his hand around that bared throat and squeezes, hard. He can just about stretch his fingers to hook in the beast's jaw and make it look at him.
"You're mine," Jared says, emphasising each word with tightening fingers. "Whatever you call yourself. I'm your king, wolf, your alpha, your jarl. I own the hair on your belly and in the food in your gullet and every breath you take." He stares the wolf down. Under his hand, the wolf stares back. Jared doesn't look away, doesn't blink. He's holding his breath, although the wolf's whistles through its compressed windpipe with a whine that shivers through Jared's skin. Slit-eyed, the wolf watches him back, and Jared tightens his fingers. There's no fear in him, only an ice-solid determination, and the wolf knows. It's a long struggle, a very long struggle, this silent duel between wolf and man.
Jared wins. There is no fear in him to allow otherwise, and in the wolf's eyes, finally, he sees a grudging and rebellious acknowledgement. In capitulation, the wolf wrenches its head further back, the tendons of its throat hardening under Jared's hand, fur over sinew, and swallows.
It's the faintest of motions, that submission, and Jared knows it's temporary.
But it's watching him back, Jared's wolf. It sees him.
"You eat for me," Jared says fiercely. "You eat, you drink, you heal. You're mine, you hear me?" He rocks his hand. "You live. And then we fight this out."
By sunrise, lying on its belly, the wolf is eating from a basin. It claws itself back from death with a stubborn tenacity Jared can only admire. It's a polite and tidy patient, shamed by its own mess. A neat eater, grooming itself when it can barely stand, and occasionally Jared could swear he sees not a beast's playfulness but a human's sardonic dark humour in those eyes.
Awake, the beast does not take its eyes off Jared. It's disconcerting, that steady neutral gaze. Jared's NorteWulf fights its way back onto its feet watching Jared's sword arm and the way he places his boots on the plank floor, the heft of his dagger hand and the breadth of his shoulders. It watches Jared as closely as a man watches his blood feuded enemy, but is never less than the politest of guests. Whatever it is, it's no snow-wolf, this beast. It's as fully aware as Jared himself, as intelligent, as proud.
There can only be one Jarl in any stedding. The day the wolf snaps at Jared's hand is the day he slams his knees in the tender cage of its ribs, jams a stave in its jaws, and buckles on both collar and chain. It's the first time he sees heat in those green eyes, staring back at him.
"You should have saved your strength," Jared says, but the wolf twitches away, hunches its shoulders and turns three times on the pallet, great paws flexing on the cloth as if the coarse wool burns the pads of its feet. Clamped between its legs, the plume of its tail shivers, and when it drops down it's with an unsteady, hitched collapse. It lies oddly tense and shivering.
If the wolf had been female, Jared would have said it was going into heat. It's not. Neatly furred and carried close to its warm belly, its genitals are as male as Jared's own. Frowning, Jared stares at the uncommunicative, tight line of the beast's back. He feels unsettled himself, overly warm and restless. It's a feeling that eases as he goes out to the hall, but later, as he stumbles back to his room, sober and disconcertingly unsteady, he's dizzy with heat. His skin itches, too tight for the beat of his heart, his balls are drawn tight and his cock is as shamingly hard as if he were still in his first year on the Warrior's Side of the hall. Shuffling and unsteady, he has to prop himself up on the stonework of the passage to move. His eyesight's blurred, but his skin is so sensitive the sandstone jars his skin, and his sense of smell is so heightened he can almost taste the scent of the girl carrying blankets into the hall. She smells ripe, of flesh and warmth, so enticing Jared's reached out for the soft burn of her bared shoulder before he realises what he's done. He doesn't tumble the men or women of his own Distaff Side, he's seen the trouble it causes in his father's halls, but he burns, and in that moment he can think of nothing but burying himself in the relief of her flesh. His cock, sword-proud, weeps: his fingers clutch at her furs. He can hear her gasp sharp as a crack of thunder.
"Jarl?" It's breathy, disbelieving.
"I want," Jared says, and his fingers are already sundering the fastenings of her cloak as he rolls them both through his doorway. He takes her, a desperate relief, standing against the wall, and then again tumbling in front of the fire. It barely sates him. There'd have been a third time, his cock rousing unsatisfied only minutes later, if she hadn't whimpered. He was enough himself then to let her stumble away, but not master of his own flesh: he strips his own cock until the skin of it burns with the friction of his calloused hands. Again and again, spending onto the stone flags and the fireside rag rug, until he can no longer bear his own touch. Unbearably roused, his skin raw, he can hear his own voice whine in his throat.
It's only then, hurting and still hard enough to hammer stone, that he sees the wolf. It's straining against the chain, paws scrabbling at the stone, its eyes fixed on his and its haunches juddering against the pallet. It's as aroused as he is, in heat, frantic.
For the first time, Jared looks in its eyes and sees nothing more than a beast staring back at him, as powerful in its want as any predator. For the first time, in a wash of sympathetic lust, he understands the old tales of men fucking beasts, Loki and Slepnir, Odin and the swan-maidens, Bödvar and the NorteWulf. As if in a dream, he rolls onto his back, dips his fingers into the goose-grease warming by the fire, and displays himself for its eyes. Spreads his legs, runs his hand up the jutting strength of his cock, rolls the head of it in the palm of his hand in shameless display. Deep in its throat, enthralled, the wolf groans, and for it Jared pleasures himself in the guttering glow of the fire. With the wolf watching, as he has never done before for any man or woman, he makes a show of the thing, the flex of his muscles, the heave of his ribcage and the rise of his hips, the way sweat gleams on his belly and thighs. It's a display that's nothing but power and he knows it, until the moment when he spends, and then, laid bare and vulnerable before the wolf's eyes, it's something else altogether. In the weakness after, Jared rolls to his belly, creeping forward: his hand is the breadth of a sword's blade away from the wolf's reaching paws and his legs are spread, his ass aching. He wants, needs, more than the touch of his own hand, he's empty and wanting as he has never felt himself yearn before in all the years of his life.
He's spreading his legs for the wolf.
The thought of it shocks him frozen. He looks up, and the wolf stares back at him with fire in its eyes, triumphant. It's not fighting against the chain, now, and as Jared watches horrified at himself it sits up, as composed as a king on the pallet. Yawns, carefully composed, although there's a fine tremor to its skin that sets the heavy ruff of fur shivering and against its belly its dick rises as swollen and hard as Jared's own. But it's as proud and silent as a votive statue, waiting, as sure of Jared as he is of his own warband.
He's no man's bitch. No wolf's. Fumbling, furious, Jared slams down the dagger from his sleeve between them, the blade sparking from stone. His voice is harsh and his words bitten out, when he speaks. "I did not come a thief or a beggar to your halls, wolf," he says. "Trickster." It's an insult, and the wolf knows it: its eyes drop. "Wounded, you fed from my hand and slept by my fire. Harness your spells. You should be kneeling to me." When Jared stands, weak-kneed, the wolf backs down. Its tail is a crestfallen droop, its head low, although it's still shaking and it moves its paws as gingerly as if it walked on embers.
"You shame me," Jared says, and the wolf whimpers, the sound so short it's almost throttled in the beast's throat, as if it had not meant to give tongue. And as if it had not spoken, Jared walks to his bed, rolls himself in his furs, and deepens his breathing for the wolf's ears alone.
On its pallet, the wolf, restless and agitated, does not sleep either. It's sunrise before both of them fall into exhausted rest.
Jared pays his debts. That night, as behooves a Jarl, he beds the girl as he should have done the night before, making of her body something precious and beautiful until she lies replete and smiling in his furs. There's no heat to it, for him, nothing of the power and need he'd felt under the wolf's eyes, only pleasure shared. He sends her away with a skein of silk wrapped around gold, and both of them know it will never happen again. And if he turns her body to the lamplight and lets the wolf watch the shape of his hands on her skin, that's between him and the beast. If his ears are cocked for a growl that never comes, although the wolf's eyes are sea-glass green in the dark, the girl is kind enough not to enquire.
Winter comes. Winter comes not with a howl but with a scatter of snowflakes on a Western wind and a creeping coverlet of sea ice in the harbor, and the last ship of the year heaves in its hawsers and turns its prow to the South. On the wall, the Watchers sharpen their swords and fire their braziers, and in Jared's hall the Warrior's Side tighten their harnesses and foreswear the feasts and toasts of Summer. Winter washes up ice against the harbor walls, drifts snow against the Wall and brings with it the hag-ridden, sword-song wait for the loathsome yowl of the Skjald.
When Jared was a boy, no one wintered in the North. The longships sailed in Spring and fled in Fall, bringing with them the furs and amber and black gold of a summer's trading and leaving the frozen land to the snow-beasts and the Skjald alone, ice-bound and knife-cold. When he became a man, when his father's kingdom could no longer hold him, Jared set sail for the North with six ships and a cargo of wood and seed grain, goats and geese and the hardy black cows of the Orkney Islands, carpenters and smiths and weavers and herders. With him went the companions of his boyhood, grown to warriors and sworn to his sword, his sister-queen Meghan and the elderly bard who had taught him his letters with a tawse in one hand and a stolen psalter in the other. His mother had watched dry-eyed from the harbor wall.
The first winter had been harder than any of them had dreamed. By the second, they had built the Wall, and that year they had sent the Skjald screaming from the steel of their swords. In Summer, the Sami came, and the first ship of the trading fleet sailed south with the fruits of a year's hunting and came back with the second settlers, prepared and joyful. Through Summer, through Winter, Jared forged his kingdom from the ice and ruled it wisely and well.
In his father's house, Winter was for sagas and feasting. In Jared's, it was the season for war.
That year, the fifth year of Jared's reign, the Skjald come early and in force, at night. It is the wolf's howl that wakes him, deep and urgent, ringing from the walls, tumbling Jared from his bed and setting his hand to Icebane's hilt before he opens his eyes. The chain is tight: the wolf is as tense as an archer's bow the moment before the arrow flies, and it's looking North. The tone of its voice is a clarion call to arms, and Jared's shrugging on his stiffened leather parka and dragging on his firskins even before the Watchers sound the alarm. Sharp in the night air, the warning rises, and the wolf's voice rises with the sound of the horns. Icebane slung on his back, his knives at his belt, Jared races for the door. Over it, his mother's war axe waits: he snatches it, flings open the door -
And looks back. The wolf is silent. It's not begging. It's as poised and calm as Alona had been, the first Winter, the night she and Jared had held the gate alone.
Jared takes two steps back, rolls the axe in his hands, and strikes the chain.
The wolf fights like a demon. It fights at Jared's side, fierce with hate, steady as a grizzled veteran, bare-toothed and violently-clawed. Its jaws snap the frozen bones of the Skjald's limbs as Jared's axe hews their misshapen skulls: it tears out their stringy throats as Icebane rips through their empty bellies. The wolf knows. It leaves no body whole to rise again at their backs, no bone unbroken, no skin unrent. There's no killing blow, for the Skjald. They bleed, slow and almost black: they break, brittle and sharp in the ice, they do not die. Like Jared, the wolf is careful where it treads on the beaten, bloody snow, guarding for the buried hand still clasping a frozen dagger: like him, it's as watchful for the newly risen dead as the desiccated shadows of the flesh of men whose souls had fled centuries before. Caught in a battle in which it owes no fealty, the wolf is as solid at Jared's side as the closest of his warband, as strong at his back as his brother had been, five years past. It learns the sweep of his axe and the swing of his sword, the hamstring thrust of his dagger hand: Jared learns that the moment when it stills is the moment before it leaps, the urgent yelp of its warning, the triumphant growl of its victory. That although it can spin on the turn of a die and leap the height of Jared's head, only a sharpened blade will cut the clinging Skjald fingers from its long coat as its pack brother's teeth must have done, in the far North. Weary, bloodied, in the last of the battle when the Skjald have been pushed from the Wall and are beginning to turn back to the ice, Jared turns to grin at the wolf and finds it grinning back.
Only fire destroys the Skjald. This they learned, almost too late, the first Winter, but now the barrels of pitch lie sealed and ready, packed in hay against the frost, and the kindling is stacked in piles the height of a ship's mast. There's no shortage of driftwood on the Western beaches. It saved their lives. Scavengers, bent over, the men and women of the Distaff side and the Warrior's Side work together, turning over broken limbs and shattered, fragmented ribcages, lifting snapping skulls on the point of a sword and grasping hands on the shaft of a broom, gathering the undead into a pyre broad and high as the spread of a sail. The wolf watches, fascinated: when the pyre is lit and the Skjald scream, burning, it shivers with astonishment. Wolves, Jared thinks, do not have fire. As he would not have done, before, Jared reaches out a hand and tugs gently at the beast's ears, soft as thistledown under his fingers. He's smiling when it turns its head, grinning, and then like a dog it wags its tail. Twice. It's an utterly conscious parody that makes Jared laugh out loud, because the wolf is no more a household pet than Ghenna a lapdog.
Never again does he chain his wolf. Instead, swordbrother, packmate, he and his wolf walk the Wall side by side. In the yard, they learn to fight together, teeth as sharp as Icebane's edge, axe as powerful as the snap of the wolf's jaws. From his high chair, Jared looks down the great hall at the men and women of his stedding, and by his side and fed from his hand his wolf sits quietly, unfettered. In council, it lies at his feet: at night, it sprawls in front of his fire. Silent and untiring, it runs by the side of his sledge, and his dogs learn to respect its presence. Even in the depth of Winter, Jared's wolf knows where the ice is thinnest, where the seals will surface, when the weather will hold and when it will break. Two days before the ice-storms scream from cloudless skies, the wolf will turn for home and with it both dog team and Jarl.
It's a creature of the North, and Jared is not. But he does not come a beggar to this strange coupling. The wolf never loses its fascination with fire, and so, the hearth in Jared's room is never allowed to cool. Feasting, the wolf will lap from a bowl of heather ale as neatly as any human guest: it has a weakness for sweetmeats and candies, and Jared finds himself hoarding honey cakes and dried apples against the heavy butt of its head against his thigh. Curled in front of the fire, half-asleep, the wolf will let Jared comb out the tangles in its coat and oil the pads of its feet against the ice with an unexpected complicity, as if it craves the touch of Jared's hands as much as he loves the warmth and weight of its fur against his fingers.
He comes to think of the wolf as friend. Furred, four legged, speechless, but friend all the same. It's possible, he thinks, that the wolf likes him too. They laugh at the same things, he and his wolf. They have the same appetite for sagas, caught up in the tales of heroes and ages past long into the night. They have the same enemy: they hate with the same intensity.
But there is little time for sagas, that fifth winter. That year, the Skjald throw everything they have against the Wall. Walking skeletons with sea wrack tangled around the bleached white of barnacled bones, Inuit dead empty-eyed and almost ice-bound inside their tattered sealskin garments, nothing in their hands but obsidian spears and flint knives, Sami hunters starvation-thin from long-ago journeys. A race of men Jared does not recognize, broad-shouldered and strong-thighed and naked on the ice, men who fight bared-handed with their hands and teeth. These, the wolf hates with passion, shredding pale skin and splintering dense bone with focused intensity. That Winter, Jared and his wolf sleep lightly when they sleep at all, tumbling into their shared furs with Jared's hand still stiffly clenched around Icebane's hilt and the wolf's muzzle stained with the black residue of whatever it is the Skjald bleed from their long-dead veins. All Winter, the pyre burns, sending acrid, sticky smoke into the grey of the sunless sky, and the Distaff Side stand watches back-to-back with the Warrior's Side.
Jared does not know it, but this is the last stand of the Skjald. Whatever it is that raises them from their icy graves and sends them to spend their strength against the living in jealous, murderous conflict, never again will it throw itself in such anger against the Wall and the men and women of the stedding. While it lasts, though, the fifth Winter feels as if it will never end, dragging itself out in a haze of exhaustion and blood spilled on ice, flashing past in moments nothing more than starlight on the blade of a raised sword and a wolf's bared teeth before both bite home.
Only when the sun rises above the horizon for the first time, that Spring, does the beat of the Skjald against the Wall lesson. The Skjald still come, dragging themselves over the ice limbless and blind to be gathered up and burnt in the great living pyre of the dead, but Jared can lay down his sword while he sleeps and his wolf leans against his knees in the hall and begs for stories with proud, pleading eyes.
Spring comes. The Skjald have failed. In the harbor, ice cracks into floes under the heave of the tide, and the wind from the West blows the snow from the shoreline. The tiny white anemones, first flowers of the year, bloom in the shelter of the Wall, and Jared and his wolf hunt living prey, not dead. That Spring, in the evenings after the work is done, blind Bjorn sings the saga of the theft of Birkenfrost, and then the saga of Micklegard and the Emperor over the Sea, and then he sings the saga of Bödvar and the great NorteWulf. Five nights it takes, that tale, and through the length of it Jared sits with his hand fastened around his drinking horn and his own wolf at his feet. As Jared has promised to do, Bödvar fought his wolf. He fought it, he fucked it - and there's a murmur around the hall at the word, unequivocally harsh - and bound it by its own promise. On his great chair, Jared stirs uneasily, and at his feet his own NorteWulf sits up, battle tense, eyes fixed on the blind bard. It's not Jared but his wolf Bjorn's white, empty gaze turns to as he strikes the last note from the battered harp strings and says, this was the first saga of Bödvar and the NorteWulf. There is another, from the years when they ruled jointly over the Western Isles and won their freedom from the Orcadian Jarls. "My Jarl," Bjorn says, "Would you hear it?"
"I would," Jared says, inexplicably both angered and afraid, and the wolf makes a half-throttled sound he's never heard it voice before.
"In these years," Bjorn says quietly, "The NorteWulf took its second form, that of a man -"
The wolf leaps for Bjorn's throat, and Jared leaps for his wolf. Around him weapons sing from their scabbards and stools clatter to the stone flags of the halls, and Meghan sweeps Bjorn up and away in the grip of her strong hands and Alona gives tongue to the high, piercing war-cry of her own people, but Jared does not notice. His hands are locked around the wolf's throat and its claws scar his back with terrible strength. Jared's wolf has been watching him. It knows the grip of his hands and the weakness of his left thigh, where a splintered stone spear caught him unawares a moon past, and when it rolls, it crashes them both against the trestle table just where the wooden struts will catch at the scar. But while Jared's wolf has been watching him, Jared's been watching his wolf. He knows that the wolf will face unafraid any threat face-on, but that an enemy at its back will tense every muscle and clamp its tail between its legs. There are linear, striped scars on the wolf's hindquarters that can only be the reminders of fights long past, and Jared's seen the snow-wolves mate, vicious and snapping on the ice. Cunning, hurting, he thrusts his thigh hard between the wolf's hind legs and forces himself hard against its vulnerable ass and its small, soft-furred genitals. Under the grip of his hands, the wolf howls like any mindless beast, and its hind legs claw at Jared's thighs, scrabbling desperately against his weight, and for the first time it's fighting as if it's truly afraid. It's twice Jared's weight and its teeth, held snapping inches from his face, are the length of his thumbs, but even as Jared ruts down in an obscene parody of an act he's only once completed without joy he can feel the wolf harden against his thigh.
"Change," he hisses, "Show yourself, wolf. Fight like a man. Or I'll chain you like the beast you are -"
Under his hands, skin. Under his weight, skin not fur, smooth and hard in all the right places, and his fingers are fastened around a human throat and the hard line of his dick presses against another, human and hot and firm as his, and the limbs locked around his hips are long and smoothly muscled and unfurred. There are hands fastened on his shoulders and the eyes that stare back at his own are wide and dark in a strong-boned, stubbled face he's never seen and yet, recognizes.
"Wolf," Jared says, and then he laughs, because everything he can feel, skin against his skin, muscle and bone and the fine weight of hair not fur brushing against his knuckles, is both brand new and heart-familiar. Suddenly, there's a fierce joy in this fight, and his hands are greedy and possessive in their bruising grip and his dick is an iron-hard demand. And even as his wolf strains against Jared's hands, he's clutching just as hard with his own. "Wolf, wolf," Jared groans, and rolls them both on the stone floor with one hand sliding down the elegant smooth muscled lines of his wolf's human skin to the perfect curve of his haunches. "Tell me your name," he demands, staring into those human eyes as his hand tightens around a human throat. Fingernails dig as deeply into his back as claws, and his wolf's thighs spread and hitch under him, and he knows then, he knows his wolf wants him as badly as he his wolf. "Oh my sword brother, my shieldmate of the long teeth, my heart," Jared murmurs, the words soft and meant for one creature alone. "My dear," he says, and then he lets go. He lets his hand unclench from that vulnerable throat, rolls them both again so that his own back is sore against stone and his wolf lies sprawled over him belly to belly. He forces himself to lie still, spreads his hands above his head, and says, "Does it have to be this way for you, my brother? Must it always be cruel? Is there no space left for love in your heart?"
Staring down, his wolf's eyes widen until the color of them is no more than a sliver around the black. He's as tense as an ice-forged blade, shaking, and his teeth bite into his bottom lip so hard blood springs scarlet from the wound. "You..." the wolf says, and his voice is low and deep, a growl that shudders through Jared's skin. "Jarl," Jared's NorteWulf says, and then suddenly he tucks his face down into the crook of Jared's neck and says, "Jared. Alpha." His hands knead at Jared's shoulders and his hips rock, unconsciously pleading.
"Shhh," Jared says, as he would say to any wounded, heart-sore creature, and he gathers his wolf in his arms and stands, braced against the weight of a man not that much smaller than himself. His wolf's eyes are closed, but the men and women of his stedding are not blind.
"It seems," Jared says, and smiles with all his teeth showing. "It seems the Sami brought us a gift greater than they knew." On the Warrior's Side, Alona raises her horn in a silent toast, and Meghan's grinning at him with a smile as wide and wild as his own. "Bjorn, tell us. How did that second saga go, that saga of Bödvar and his NorteWulf?"
Bjorn coughs and clears his throat. "Renowned and wise -" he manages, and is interrupted.
"There was a hand-fasting before!" Meghan yells. "Jarl, we should feast!"
"Let him bed the wolf first," Sven shouts, and there's a chorus of voices offering both enthusiastic encouragement and cheerfully ribald instruction. They're not shy, his men and women, and Jared grins back at them predatory and triumphant before he hefts his wolf in his arms and takes him out to the bed they've shared for most of the Winter.
It's different this time, when he tumbles his wolf down into the furs. They're not battle-weary and worn. There's no blood on their skin and fur, no wounds to tend: Icebane is not sharing their bed. Jared's laughing when he lets himself fall, and his wolf opens his hands to catch him safe. That night, like Bödvar, Jared fucks his own NorteWulf, rolling in the furs gentle and victorious by turn. Astonished, clumsily gentle, Jared's wolf shivers at the touch of Jared's hands and seems to think Jared's going to fuck him dry and hard like any beast of the field. The wolf's spent twice by the time Jared's satisfied he's not going to give a moment's hurt, here in his own bed with his love in his arms, and when the wolf comes on Jared's cock it's with a joyous howl that rattles the war axe in its cradle and shakes dust from the rafters. Later, poised, their hands clasped and Jared's body yearning and empty, Jared spreads his thighs and bites the pillow for his wolf. When Jared's NorteWulf thrusts home, Jared finds that surrender can be just as sweet as victory.
It's a long Summer, the sixth Summer Jared Wolfjarl rules in the North. The sun warms the grain to ripening, and the cows calve easily and give generously of their milk, and the hunting is easy. That summer, the Jarl and his NorteWulf Jensen Jaredswolf travel further north than any save the Inuit have ever journeyed, and return with a sledge piled high with brindled furs of a kind no trader has seen before. Sixteen ships from the Southern Lands ride at anchor in the harbor and one of them carries the Southern Queen, meeting at last her children in the land they have made their own. And that Summer, the blind bard Bjorn starts to write his swansong saga, the tale of the wolf who was also a man and the man who tamed a wolf.
Image: Kana Go, for her Russian translation