Jaws of Fenris
Episode Five: Fenris
By John Outram
About the author
MAN-LIKE IN SHAPE, it was
cloaked in thick white fur, the
belly and face barred with black stripes and smeared with gore. Long
iron claws dripped fresh blood. Donal, the Keldish merchant, gasped out
the name that was on all their lips:
Skalgrim was the first to break the spell of paralysis that had fallen upon the wolf-hides. He snatched a spear from the nearest guard and flung it with all his strength. With one fluid motion, the White Leopard caught the spear in flight, turned it around and flung it back – not at Skalgrim but at Gidian!
Even as the spear-blade sheared through his bonds, Gidian recognised the face beneath the leopard-skin hood, beneath the soot-black and blood-spatter, behind the feral blue-glitter of battle-fury. This was Kavlar, but a Kavlar he had never quite seen in the young pack-handler he had hired in Bjornby. This Kavlar was the White Leopard, the leader of the Monadar Waren renegades, the terror of the wild hinterlands, an enemy more fearsome than any wolf-hide.
"What's it to be, Skalgrim?" Kavlar sneered, facing the wolf-priest. "Hand over my sword and I promise you a quick death – and unlike some, I keep my promises."
"And I promised you the chance to join the Sons of Fenris," replied Skalgrim. "And you shall do so – through the jaws of Fenris!"
Skalgrim drew the stolen sword and launched himself at Kavlar. With four six-inch steel claws protruding from each clenched fist, Kavlar crouched to meet him. Wolf and leopard collided in a clash of metal and animal snarls.
Kavlar was a strong youth and his blood was up, but Skalgrim was as wily a wolf as the forest knew. He misjudged the speed and skill of his opponent for a moment; the steel claws raked him and, but for the steel mail under his wolf-skin tunic, he would not have left Kavlar's embrace with his liver intact. But he learned his lesson. Breaking free, he used the extra reach of his sword to keep Kavlar at bay. He did not risk another full-blown attack on the youth, but with feints and challenges he managed to prevent Kavlar from closing with him. The other wolf-hides came quickly to his aid, and soon the White Leopard was ringed with swords and spears.
Gidian found he could work his hand loose and get a grip on the spear that Kavlar had thrown. In a moment or two he had cut his left hand free. A deft touch with the spear-blade had just about worked him free when the wolf-hides spotted him. Like Kavlar, he found himself surrounded by gleaming blades.
Through the trees came a dozen grey ghosts, white fur and blond hair glistening with a pale light as the first signs of dawn began to lighten the eastern skyline. Swords and spears were in their hands. They saw the wolf-men gathered before their altar, and without hesitating they fell upon them from the forest, their war cry echoing a hatred older than the trees themselves. Renegades they might be, but they were still Monadar Waren and the wolf-hides were their ancient enemies.
Gidian saw the renegades burst from the forest, and he saw his chance. A moment's distraction was all he needed to take one down with a neat spear thrust, and as the man fell he wrestled the sword from his dying grasp. He was loose, with a good weapon in his hands. Towering over the fur clad Northmen, Gidian smiled. They had encountered Gidian the travelling scholar, drugged and bound. Gidian the Warrior-Priest now faced them. A little under seven feet tall, Gidian's gaunt build masked a strong and agile frame, and with a sword in his hand he was a match for any wolf-hide bandit.
Outnumbered, the Monadar Waren put up a fierce fight. Kavlar went down under a mass of wolf-hide bodies, but his companions rushed to avenge him, and in a few bloody minutes they had slain twice their own number for the loss of three men. Gidian, too, did good work with his stolen sword, and managed to find time to cut Donal and one of his grooms free. And out of the forest behind the Waren renegades came a huge black dog – Gulo had tracked down his master at last. He launched himself among the wolf-hides, and soon his jaws were dripping blood.
The battle ebbed back and forth, the wolf-hides finding their confidence again as more of their comrades ran in from the forest edge, the Monadar renegades and the freed captives counter-attacking with renewed vigour. In the end it was the wolf-hides who had the worst of it. Skalgrim and a handful of men drew back to the cave to make a stand. The rest slunk away into the forest. Gidian, Donal and nine Waren warriors closed in on Skalgrim's group, waiting to see what they would do.
"Do you want to kill him, Gidian, or shall I?" asked Donal. He clutched a spear and glared at the wolf-skins with murderous vengeance blazing in his eyes.
"Oh, this is my fight," replied Gidian. "By Mitra, Skalgrim, I gave you every chance to come to terms with me in peace. I offered you the chance to be my ally. Now you will know what it is to be my enemy."
Skalgrim's reply was to throw back his head and howl like a wolf. His eyes rolled back in his head and saliva dripped from his lolling tongue. He hurled himself at Gidian, swinging Kavlar's sword in a two handed stroke that needed all the Rangeman's strength to parry. Three more wild swings followed in quick succession, driving Gidian back a step. The wolf-priest cackled madly and growled like a dog as he fought. If he had sprouted fangs and turned into a werewolf there and then, neither Donal nor Gidian could have been any more surprised.
But wild, wolfish fury was not enough. After
withstanding the first few moments, Gidian was able to counter attack
with fast, well-aimed strokes, and Skalgrim made a fatal mistake. To
lever back Gidian's attack, he gripped the sword in both hands, by hilt
and blade, and pressed forward. It was a well-known trick among the
Northmen, who liked to wield a sword by the blade and use the hilts
like a hook to pull down a foe. But Kavlar's sword was as sharp as a
razor, and sliced through Skalgrim's fingers to the bone where he
gripped it. Gidian's next stroke crashed through his mail and ribcage.
The wolf-priest lay dying.
"This changes nothing," he gasped. "He is coming. Nothing will change that."
Gidian drew out his bloody sword.
"You are fodder for the wolves…" hissed Skalgrim, and his eyes closed.
"We are all fodder for wolves or worms, one way or another."
Gidian turned. Struggling out from under a mass of bodies was Kavlar, still in his leopard-skin cloak, bloody but unbowed. His forehead was badly gashed and his right arm dangled awkwardly, but he was grinning and he still had the iron claws gripped in his left hand.
Gidian smiled: "Did you always mean to ambush us with your renegade band, Kavlar?"
"Did you always mean to lead us into this den of wolves?" retorted the youth.
"It has not worked out as either of us planned," Gidian admitted. "I would never have guessed you were the White Leopard."
"I always thought there was something about you that didn't ring true," retorted the youth. "Not enough packs. I said as much."
"I came here to find warriors for my cause," said Gidian, "and I have found them. What do you say, Kavlar? I can promise you and your comrades better reward and better sport than you would ever have on this side of the Narwhal Strait."
"Damn you, Gidian!" Donal exploded, throwing down his spear. "You never learn, do you? Well, you can deal with the last of these wolf-hides without me and my boys. I'm off, before these Waren dogs turn on you and cut your throat."
With that the Keldish merchant turned his back on them and stalked off into the grey morning. Kavlar watched him go, then turned back to the tall Rangeman.
"We are Waren clansmen, not mercenaries. We acknowledge no men as master."
"I want your help, not to be your master," said Gidian. "The Keldish raiders who burned our villages last year are your enemies as much as mine. I am offering you the chance to cross the Narwhal Strait and fight them there as you fight them here. Besides – you are all renegades and exiles from the Waren clans. I can offer you a home among the Rangemen – "
"By all the gods of the North!" gasped Kavlar.
He pointed to the cave entrance where the last of the wolf-hides had hidden. The men were gone. In their place stood six grey wolves, and from behind them a seventh crept forward. It was black as night, its eyes red like glowing coals, and it was without a doubt the largest wolf that any of them had ever seen – maybe the largest wolf that had ever lived. Fangs fully four inches long glistened in its red maw as it paced towards them, slowly and deliberately, and not a man among them could move for sheer terror. The Great Wolf led his brethren to the feasting.
"Fenris the Wolf," muttered Kavlar. "We are doomed."
Then a dark shape launched itself from the forest. The wolves drew back a moment as a huge hound drove among them, its open jaws aiming for the Great Wolf's throat. Gulo, Kavlar's dog, hurled himself in berserk fury at his ancestral enemy. Shaken from their paralysis, the men readied their weapons just in time as the slavering black wolves were upon them.
Dog and wolf faced each other, close-kin though enemies more ancient than Waren and wolf-hide. The wolf was longer and larger, but Gulo was heavy and compact, with wide, strong jaws and sturdy limbs. The Great Wolf slashed and tore at the dog with fang and claw while Gulo drove the wolf backwards, trying to find a way to fasten his teeth firmly into the creature's throat. A terrible bloody wrestling match commenced. Fur and blood were strewn about, Gulo's powerful jaws wreaking terrible injuries on the wolf, the wolf's huge fangs slashing the hound again and again. Gulo seized his enemy's throat, foiled for a moment by the thick fur but knowing he had a death grip if he could only keep a hold of an opponent who twisted, turned, slashed and shook.
At last the Great Wolf weakened. His legs buckled and he slumped down. Gulo was too feeble to press the advantage; battered and limp, his only strength was in his relentless jaws. Blood poured from the fang wounds in his sides, but Gulo held on resolutely, and would hold on to the death.
Skalgrim witnessed the desperate battle, and saw the monstrous wolf brought down even as his own schemes had been brought down. This he feared more than his own death. With the last reserves of energy his wounded body could gather, he hauled himself upright and drew the long, iron dagger from his belt. One last blow for Fenris – the death of this Waren hellhound to buy the life of the Great Wolf.
One well-struck blow was all that was need--
Kavlar's sword stood out suddenly a full six inches where it had been thrust straight through Skalgrim's chest. Howling like a wolf again, the wolf-priest rolled away, thrashing in agony, flailing out with his knife, and then he lay still. The fight was over.
"I keep my promises," muttered Kavlar. "You gave me back my sword – I gave you a quick death."
He slumped down by the bodies of priest, wolf and dog. Gulo had relaxed his grip at last, but it was too late for the Great Wolf, whose eyes stared glassily upwards.
"Mitra!" gasped Gidian. "Was it Fenris, do you think? And what happened to those last six men? Did they really turn into wolves?"
"Who knows? Fenris was meant to be bound until the end of the world. Maybe that has come," replied Kavlar. Wounded and weary, he pressed his ear to the dog's side, desperate for the sound of a heartbeat.
"I keep my promises, too," said Gidian. "I doubt you will lack adventure wherever you go, lad, but there is a whole world beyond the Narwhal Strait. Come with me, fight at my side, and I will open that world for you."
Kavlar ran his hands sadly through the hound's thick fur, but his eyes blazed with a blue fire. He was young, he was strong, and he had a world to see.
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Outram. It may not
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