Jaws of Fenris
Episode Three: The Wolves of the Forest
By John Outram
About the author
F ORWARD THEY CAME, SLOW BUT SURE, padding forward towards the scent of the kill. The nearest could be plainly seen now, a great, grey she-wolf, bringing her pack behind her.
"Tuoni's teeth!" swore Kavlar, feeling his blood run cold.
"Hyaargh! Get away there!" yelled Bjarn. "Hyaargh! Join in, fellows, even starving wolves may be afraid to attack men. Hyaargh!"
Pilton and Karl lent their voices to the clamour, and the wolves hesitated. The men rattled the stocks and chains, tore at their bonds, and shouted until they were hoarse. But the wolves did not retreat. Warily, silently, they circled the humans, growling menacingly. Suddenly the she-wolf darted forward and slashed at Karl's face with her fangs, then darted back into the pack. Karl shrieked with pain and sank back while Bjarn and Pilton yelled all the more.
"It is no use," said Kavlar. "These wolves have been here before. They know that we are bound, that we have no weapons and cannot resist them. Many times they have come to take their meal here, and now they have no fear of men."
"Are we to be eaten alive then?" asked Pilton, his voice shrill with fear. "Is there nothing we can do?"
"Not while these stocks hold," grinned Karl, "and they seem firm."
"It is not the Waren way to die without a fight," replied the youngster defiantly. He rattled the stocks and strained at the ropes on his wrists, but to no avail.
"Easy there, lad, you may be strong but you're not that strong," said Bjarn. "Don't you think we've tried that. Here's a better thought. Lie on your side and see if you can bend your neck round to bite at these thongs on me. If I can only get my hands free I think I could reach the bolt that holds the stocks closed."
"Why do you not try to free Karl?" asked Kavlar. "He is closer."
"Damn you, do it, don't argue!" swore Bjarn. "You are younger than I am. My neck is too stiff to get down to the ropes."
"Here they come again," said Pilton, watching the gleaming eyes as the wolves slowly drew towards them, fangs bared, tongues lolling forward. The she-wolf sprang again, and two others with her. They picked on Karl first, snapping at his face and pulling his arm. The cousins screamed and shrieked incoherently, Bjarn thrashing every bit as much as Karl through fear and impotent fury. They called on every god and demon they had ever heard of, they wept and cursed and shouted, but the wolves only grew more frenzied, growling and yapping back as they saw more clearly how they had the upper hand.
One rushed in at Pilton, and he screamed in terror as its hot, foul breath blew in his face. But it only stole a scrap of carrion from his lap, and ran back to join the wolves who had not yet dared an assault but still waited in the shadows. Kavlar realised they might be there for days and nights waiting for the wolves to pick them off as they grew weaker.
It was all he could do to curl himself round to reach the rawhide bonds that held Bjarn's hands, for though the supplest of the four he was also the tallest and the stocks held them close together. The earth was damp and clammy, and Bjarn's frenzied thrashing kept pulling the thongs free of Kavlar's bite while pushing his face further into the dirt. He felt he was biting more twigs and leaf mould than he was rawhide. A weight pressed down on his abdomen. He gasped as sharp fangs dug into his left leg.
"Keep biting, you Waren dog!" roared Bjarn. "Our lives depend on it."
"Then get the damned wolves off me!" returned Kavlar rancorously.
His mouth was bleeding, his teeth were sore. It seemed the rawhide strips would never yield. He felt the wolf at his back again, rolled over towards him. Suddenly there was an awful, yelping cry, and the wolf went running back into the forest.
"What in Hel's name are you doing?" asked Bjarn.
"Biting," said Kavlar.
Gidian looked around him, trying to shake his head clear of the drugged wine they had given him. Creatures that seemed half-man, half-beast, surrounded him on all sides, at least thirty warriors with torches and perhaps more skulking in the woods. From the description Donal had given him and from other travellers' tales, he realised these were the wolf-hides of Thule, but in the dark and with their wolf head-dresses in place they looked convincingly beast-like. But they seemed disciplined and well-led, treating their captives with a cold efficiency that was somehow more chilling than the taunting cruelty he feared.
Donal and his grooms stumbled alongside him, their hands bound as were Gidian's. The Rangeman noted that neither Pilton, his valet, nor the lad Kavlar were with them.
"Where are we going?" he asked, but the guard beside him said nothing. He asked to same question of the tall leader but got no more reply than a sly half-smile from within the shadows of the wolf-masks.
When Donal tripped and fell the tall man barked an order and brought the column to a sudden halt, waiting patiently while the merchant was helped back to his feet. Donal swore and cursed at the men holding him, but they did not react. As soon as he was standing they resumed their journey. A number of times one of the prisoners fell on that darkened, uneven path, and each time the matter was dealt with the same way. Their silence was unnerving.
"I am Gidian, a Rangeman. I don't know what you want with us but -"
"What you were does not matter," replied the leader quietly. "You are a prisoner of the Sons of Fenris."
"In my own country I have wealth. I could make it worth your while - "
"We are not in your country. Everything you have is in our hands - even your lives - and we intend to take it all. Forget your wealth, your status, your name. You are a sacrifice to the Great Wolf. Nothing else is true now."
Gidian looked hard at the leader, trying to guess his thoughts. He seemed intelligent and rational, and he had shown no signs of cruelty or bloodthirstiness so far. Nonetheless, Gidian knew the look of the fanatic, and he fancied he saw a hint of that look in those cold grey eyes as the torchlight danced in them.
"My friends would pay a rich ransom for me," said Gidian desperately. "Name your price."
"I have no price. I am Skalgrim, Priest to Fenris. Your gold is nothing to me. We are the ulfhednar, the Sons of the Wolf, and our only will is to serve our lord, Fenris Ulf. Enough talk, now."
"Save your breath," muttered Donal behind him, chafing at the ropes on his wrists. "These scum cannot be bargained with. As well bargain with the wolves in the forest!"
The leader turned to Donal and regarded him with the same cold smile.
"Yes," he said. "You have it exactly."
They reached the base of a high, limestone
that rose ominously out of the pine trees. An enormous cave yawned
them like the mouth of a demon. Flanking the cave were the carven
of two huge wolves, the dark wood stained darker at the muzzle as if
had recently feasted. The light flickering on them revealed a bestial
and malevolence skilfully captured by the craftsman.
This was surely
Around the mouth of the cave were arranged six frames made each
of two planks bound cross-wise to a central stake. A bonfire was
merrily between the frames, and another group of the wolf-hides was
around it, talking in low voices. As Skalgrim's group joined them three
came over and dragged Donal to the first of the frames and, untying his
arms, began to lash him anew to the cross. They did this with the
and finally with Gidian. He thought of struggling - he was a strong
and even with two men holding his arms he might have got free - but he
realised he could never escape from so many of them.
This was surely the place.
Around the mouth of the cave were arranged six frames made each of two planks bound cross-wise to a central stake. A bonfire was burning merrily between the frames, and another group of the wolf-hides was gathered around it, talking in low voices. As Skalgrim's group joined them three came over and dragged Donal to the first of the frames and, untying his arms, began to lash him anew to the cross. They did this with the grooms and finally with Gidian. He thought of struggling - he was a strong man, and even with two men holding his arms he might have got free - but he realised he could never escape from so many of them.
"Donal," he called out, "do you know what they have in mind to do with us?"
"Be still!" sneered one of the guards, fetching Gidian a blow to the side of the head. "No talking!"
Donal smiled: "I feel sure we'll know soon enough."
"Yes, you will know soon!" said Skalgrim. "Perhaps you also wonder about your companions? The kindred of Fenris have needs that are earthly, and his servants provide for them. Even now, the wolves of the forest are feasting! If we listen carefully, we shall hear them howling their pleasure to us. But Fenris, too, demands a sacrifice. Your fate will be neither more nor less cruel than theirs."
Donal laughed bitterly: "He means the blood-eagle. Prepare to be shocked, Rangeman."
The wolves grew more daring, rushing in more often now, snarling and biting. The she-wolf leading them bared her teeth in Kavlar's face. He let go the rawhide thongs and bared his own in reply, letting fly a growling challenge to make any wild cat proud. The wolf backed away uncertainly. Bjarn strained at his bonds with all his might.
"Once more and you'll break free," promised Kavlar, though in the darkness he had no idea how much progress they had made.
"You keep saying that," grunted Bjarn. "Hel take you, you she-bitch! Get out of my face!"
"Mitra preserve our souls, we are going to die," said Pilton.
"No we're not!" snarled Kavlar. "Once more, Bjarn!"
Bjarn pulled with a will, and felt the rawhide stretch and tear. It took a few more tugs, but he knew he was nearly free. With a roar of triumph he waved his hands recklessly at the snarling pack. The beasts drew back. They were wily creatures and knew well the difference between a bound, helpless man and one with his arms free. Bjarn picked up a stick and hurled it at the she-wolf leader, driving her further back, and all the wolves followed her example, caution and hunger fighting within their lupine reason. They were trying to judge whether or not they could rush this fierce man together and bring him down.
Quickly Bjarn leant forward. The stocks were secured by a bolt on the left hand end. Reaching as far as his arms would go he could just touch the bolt with his fingertips. Kavlar and Karl cursed him roundly as he tried to stretch a little further. Pilton began to pray in his own tongue, and Kavlar resolved to punch him if ever his hands were free again.
One or two of the bolder wolves edged a little closer, realising their prey was still trapped. Then Bjarn's fingers closed around the bolt and drew it free. Together they kicked loose the upper board just as the wolves rushed in on them. Bjarn got to his feet only to be borne down by the she-wolf. The others, with their hands still tied, were overwhelmed. Pilton tried to roll free, but a gaunt grey creature seized his arm in its jaws. Karl and Kavlar were kicking furiously at anything in reach; Bjarn grappled the she-wolf as her teeth lunged for his throat. At last he threw her off and closed his fingers around another stick. He regained his feet and brandished the weapon, cowing the wolves before him. They were maddened by blood and they outnumbered their prey, but they knew the danger of a man with a weapon in his hand. In the mid-winter, when food was scarce and life cheap, they would have jumped at him, borne him down, seized him from all sides and torn him apart.
But not now. They feared man and his weapons. With a final chorus of growling and whining, they slunk back into the shadows.
Bjarn quickly untied his companions, and they checked where they had been bitten.
"Nothing that won't heal," muttered Kavlar.
Bjarn was bleeding profusely from at least a score of bites, and Karl had one ear all but torn away. Pilton's thick woollen garments had spared him the worst, though the wolf had drawn blood from his leg. Kavlar was scratched here and there, but they suspected the wolf he had bitten had fared somewhat worse.
"Which way to Darrowby?" he wondered aloud. "That way is east... I see a hint of dawn. I would guess the path to Darrowby is westward."
Pilton gazed at him in dull amazement.
"You want to go back to Darrowby?" he asked. "Where the wolf-skins are?"
"Damn right!" exclaimed Kavlar. "They've got my pack, my sword... and my dog. If any harm has been done to any of my things they'll die a worse death than they ever intended on us. Keep up if you can!"
At a command from Skalgrim, the wolf-skins gathered closer around the prisoners. The priest raised his hand, and the others fell silent.
"Lord Fenris!" he cried. "Accept the sacrifice we offer you! May the blood and flesh of our offering give you strength in the trial that comes! So may we be made strong, who worship your image and welcome the spirit of the wolf into our souls!"
One of the wolf-skins drew a long dagger and forced Conar against a wooden frame. His hands and legs were tied to opposite corners. The wolf-skin ripped open the boy's shirt and placed the blade against his chest. Conar looked down at the sharp steel, unable to resist.
Another wolf-skin joined the first in taking a knife to Conar. The young groom gasped as a bloody line was drawn along his breast bone, enough to split the skin but no deeper. Enough to cut away the skin and leave the flesh intact… Donal, somewhere on Gidian's right, groaned out loud and then cursed. With mounting horror, Gidian recalled some of the tales he had heard of these barbaric Northmen.
He understood what was meant by the blood-eagle.
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