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Fenrir

She ignored the other sacrifices to the Gods at first. The animals were small and useless for meat anyway.

         But when her daughter slaughtered their only goat, she had to intervene. She explained that sacrifices to the Gods were only when we needed their help. Too many sacrifices and the Gods will grow weary of our offerings.

         She did not dwell on the nature of the death then. The splitting of flesh, the scratches on her daughter’s arms, the bite on her leg. She was sure the goat was still alive when the cuts were made, a thought that still made her shudder. Some sacrifices were more brutal than others – the higher the suffering, the greater the gift to the Gods. 

         She didn’t listen to her daughter’s reasoning either; she needed to call on the Gods once, she said, and they had called to her since—nonsense words from a silly child. Only the insane and the seer speak to the Gods. And Kari was neither of those.

         Nothing happened for some time. She assumed that Kari had stopped her childish games and learned to leave the slaughter to those with the wisdom and grace to understand the meaning and reverence of the act.

         She was wrong.

         The body on the floor of their hut was unrecognisable. Strips of meat ripped from the bone, obscuring the tattoos that would normally identify a fallen, bloody warrior. The face had been pummelled and cut until it was nothing more than lumps of bloody flesh. Two limbs were missing - one arm, one leg. His manhood was also gone, leaving a pool of blood radiating from the top of his thighs.

         Ylva wretched at the sight and ran outside. It was early, the sun barely peeking through the thick of the nearby forest. With their small village in darkness and most still in slumber, she was not seen.

         But the early morning light would soon bloom into a long, bright day. She only had an hour, maybe less, before the village stirred and the cover of pre-dawn was gone. She couldn’t wait until nightfall. The huts heated fast in the summer sun, and the smell of rot would permeate everything by noon and never dissipate. She had to act now or risk being accused of this crime. No one would believe a girl of four and ten could be capable of a thing. Despite everything, even Ylva found it hard to believe Kari could be responsible.

         Despite its gruesome deformity, Ylva knew that the body that lay there was once her husband. His bulk, the shreds of clothes, the intricate plaits in his long hair she weaved herself- a rarity amongst the men in the village. There was no doubt in her mind that this was Egil.

         It could have been someone else who did this, left the body here for her to take the blame. Egil had made plenty of enemies in his lifetime. It was possible they finally came to collect on his many debts. But it doesn’t matter. He was lying on her floor. His blood was on her dress, her hands.

         Women turning on their husbands was not uncommon in other places; it would be easy to believe she did this. For the beatings. The rape. The countless infidelities and inevitable bastard children.

         But this was not her life. Egil was a gift. He was kind. Committed. 

         They had the rarest gift from the Gods.

         They had love.

         Ylva allowed one tear to fall and trail down her cheek before wiping it away and slapping her cheek.

         No tears, she told herself. No tears.

         She grabbed the remaining arm and pulled. The body did not move an inch. Despite his missing parts, he was still too heavy. She pulled again, harder this time. A wet, ripping sound filled the hut as Ylva fell backwards onto the floor, Egil’s arm landing on top of her.

         Her scream was silent, but only just. 

         The neighbours were a fair distance away, but no hut was soundproof. She was lucky the gossip next door didn’t rouse at the sound of her vomiting. But she could easily cover early nausea - a woman still in her prime with a husband hoping for a son. The visceral scream she managed to quiet would have been harder to explain, giving Yrsa enough to start a damaging rumour when Egil’s body was found. 

         She looked over at the now severed arm and gulped. Maybe the other parts will come off with enough force, she thought. 

         The next part was how to get the parts out fast when done. Looking around their hut, her eyes snagged on the bed. The furs. She could create a sling to carry multiple parts at once. The furs would also conceal what is inside if she happened upon another villager as she crept into the forest.

         More tears welled as she gathered the soft blankets she and her husband had cuddled under.    

         They made their daughter on top of them. They tried so many times for a son underneath. Most of the furs were gifts from their brudlaup 15 years ago. The sacrifice to Freyja was less than favourable due to a bitter winter prior and a strange disease that decimated the village’s herd. Ylva often feared that their scant offering of an emaciated goat hung over them - their lack of a second child a curse. But she was wrong. It was the presence of a child that was the curse. 

         How could I not have seen it? How could the seer not warn me?

         Ylva stilled at the thought of her murderous daughter. She was not inside - the hut was too small to hide, and raids were less common in the outer villages, negating the need for a hidden compartment under the house as they did in bigger, riskier towns. 

         Then where is she? Am I next on her list?

         As Ylva pulled at parts of her husband’s body, wincing and retching at the wet tearing sound, she questioned so many things.

         What did I do to deserve such a fate? And what of my dear Egil - why was he made to suffer? Did my sweet daughter really commit such a heinous crime? Why?

         She hoped Egil was dead quickly. That if he wasn’t, he died stoically in the face of such horrors so that he might enter Valhalla. He was a good man; he didn’t deserve this level of torture in death. He deserved a place at Odin’s table. 

         If Kari was responsible for this, Ylva could not understand. She loved her father. 

         The more she thought about it, the more it made no sense. Kari could not have overpowered her father. He was three times her height. Broad and muscular. He could have battered her away like a fly if he had to. 

         And the cuts. Deep, ragged cuts through flesh and bone. Kari wouldn’t have the strength. No, she couldn’t have done this. It is against all that is humanly possible. Despite all the things that came before, Ylva knew this was against all that was possible within Kari.

*

Kari woke in the woods. She finally found the courage to follow her mother into the forest. Her mother always waited until her father was in a deep sleep. A death sleep that came upon him strangely on the same night she snuck out from their narrow marital bed and into the thickness of the conifer forest.

Her mother left with nothing more than her day clothes on, so Kari did the same. She assumed her mother knew something that she did not, that the forest would somehow be milder than their village. She regretted it almost immediately - the bitter cold that descended at night bit harder in the wilderness.  

         How do animals survive this torture?  she thought.

         The journey into the forest was slow at first, her mother picking her way through the trees tentatively as if trying to find her way. But, as they went deeper into the forest, her pace quickened until she ran as fast as a deer. Kari lost her then and stood alone in a small glade, the trees looming over her like giant, ominous shadows.

         She was lost.

         Alone.

         She tried to retrace her steps back in her mind, but the pace picked up so much that she lost count of how many lefts, rights, and trees between each turn. All directions looked the same.

         The cold seeped into her bones as she stood there, frozen in indecision and fear. The only thing she could move were her eyes. They darted around, caught by every sound and shadow that swept past her. There was something there. Of course there was. There were an uncountable number of things lurking in the forest. Some big, some small. Some of little consequence and others she knew she couldn’t battle alone, at least not without dálkr - her trusty knife. 

         The thing was circling her. She could feel its eyes moving around her. It was big. Despite its attempts to slink through the darkness, the lightness of its tread as it paced, she could hear it breathing. It was heavy, with the softest growl that told her of its hunger. 

         If she couldn’t get her legs to move, this thing was going to eat her alive.

         She prayed to the Gods, those she dutifully listened to, sacrificed to, despite her apprehension, but she was met with a wall of silence.

         Why would the Gods abandon me now?  After all I have done, after years of endless chatter, of innumerable wicked requests. Why?

         A test. Maybe this is a test. Of bravery. Of intellect. Of resolve. I can do this.

         She willed her left leg forward. It obeyed. Then her right. Once they started moving, they kept going. In what direction, it didn’t matter. Just somewhere - if not back to the village, then maybe a small tree hollow big enough for her but not the beast that stalked her. 

         As she ran, she could hear heavy beats behind her. The thing had given up being stealthy in exchange for speed.

         Low-hanging branches whipped Kari in her face as she ran, tearing her soft, unblemished skin. She felt beads run down her face. She wiped away the wetness with her fingers, licking her ring finger as she did. A metallic taste hit her tongue. More drips were already cascading down her face. Even if she hid now, the thing could track her from the smell of blood. She was finished.

 

The monster hadn’t left her mind when she awoke, but how she survived had. One moment she was being chased; the next, she was stirring on the forest floor. It didn’t make sense. Even if her predator had lost interest, the cold should have finished her off after a night of slumber in the freezing woods. 

She touched her face. It was as smooth and lovely as samite - that rare material she had the honour of running her hand over briefly when the boats last returned from the East. The tears from the vicious tree branches had healed. She checked herself over. Not a hint of frostbite nipped at her extremities. Only a tiny mark on her hand was evidence of her traumatic night. 

         Kari could tell it was a bite, but it only appeared on her palm, as if the creature gently placed its teeth on her hand. The mark was not raw or bloody. It looked like it had always been there.

Getting to her feet, Kari tried to put her thoughts in order. To understand the strangeness of the night and the even stranger morning where she still lived and did not know how.

         Her feet started taking her away from her resting place. She didn’t question them. Somehow, she knew they were taking her the right way.

         Perhaps her mother could explain the mystery of the night. After all, she was out there too.

 

Kari arrived home before the sun reached its peak. Ylva was sitting in the small living area, steps away from her bed. The bed was a luxury that came at a cost of having no other furniture save for the small cot that Kari slept in - a cot that was now far too small for a growing girl. 

         Ylva sat cross-legged, her arms mirroring her legs, and stared at the door. She willed Kari to open it over and over. She had cleaned as best she could. Her clothes were ruined, and waited by the door to be burnt. A blood stain remained on the dirt floor, but at least it was dry. Whenever she stole a glance at the dull red mark, she lifted and ran her hand along her buttocks, still expecting to find the gumminess of congealed blood stuck to her. 

         Finally, the door opened. Kari stood in silhouette; the near midday sun glared violently behind her. She stared at her mother. Her mother stared right back. It was clear both had things to say to the other, but neither knew where to start.

         Kari finally broke the silence.

         “Where is Fadir?” 

         Ylva’s eyes widened at the question. It was not what she was expecting.

         “Come in, close the door.”

         Kari did as she was told but pressed her back against the closed door. This was close enough until she knew more about what had happened last night, where her mother had gone.

         Ylva was fine with this reluctance from her daughter. Given how her husband had been left and if Kari was responsible, she wanted a reasonable distance between them, too.

         “Your Fadir is dead, Kari. You know this.”

         Kari’s brow furrowed, her jaw squared. How could she know her father was dead? 

         The woods.

         Luring her out of their home.

         No witness. No one to intervene.

         It was starting to make sense to her now. Her heart raced as she dared to ask her mother: “Did you kill him, Modir?”

         This question, the accusation, pushed Ylva to her feet.

         “How dare you say such things, Kari! No, I did not kill your Fadir. I spent the early hours cleaning up what you left of him!”

         “What I left? What do you mean? I got lost in the woods last night following you, Modir! I am lucky to be back alive.”

         Ylva frowned. “I did not go anywhere last night, Kari. If you will tell such tales, at least make them believable.”

         “But you did!” Kari yelled. “You leave when Fadir falls to sleep. I have watched you creep out for many moons. Last night, I was finally brave enough to follow you.”

         Ylva rolled her eyes. “Fine, Kari. Let’s pretend I did sneak off into the woods. You say you followed, so where did I go?”

         Kari looked at her feet and bit her lip. “I do not know, Modir. You began to run so fast that I could not keep up.” Her head snapped up, eyes narrowed. “Then the beast came.”

         That’s right, Kari thought. The thing that chased her appeared only when her mother had disappeared. She baulked at the thought. That’s impossible.

         She looked down at her hand. The mysterious, healed bite. As she looked closer, she saw the shape of a moon. It’s impossible.

         Her mother was yelling now. Not loudly - she wouldn’t want to alert the neighbours. The yell was in her tone. But Kari couldn’t hear her. She could only hear the rush of blood, a primal growl humming from her throat.

         “Fenrir,” muttered Kari.

         This stopped her mother halfway through her whispered rant.

         “What did you say?”

         “Fenrir,” she repeated. “You were there, and then you ran as fast as a wild thing. And then something came. It was you.”

         Ylva froze. From the words her daughter said. From the realisation that she had no memory of the night before - she assumed she was simply asleep. But there were times, long ago, when she would wake in places different to where she had laid down her head. Sleep drifting, her grandmother said, something she promised she’d outgrow. And she thought she had.

         “Kari, please, just tell me the truth. What happened?”

         “I have told you the truth. Everything, except…” she paused, her thumb brushing the new scar on her other hand.

         “Except what, Kari? Tell me!”

         “Except this!” Kari lunged forward, pushing her palm into her mother’s face. 

         Ylva’s eyes blurred at the sight of Kari’s hand up close. When her eyes adjusted, they immediately focused on the mark. She looked down at her own hand, the one that had borne the same mark for as long as she could remember.

         “What is this, Kari? A bite from another terrified animal?”

         “I don’t know!” Her shoulders slumped as the anger from her mother’s accusations seeped away. “I don’t know. I was being chased. I woke up, and I was alone. I don’t know how I survived. How I remained untouched by beast or god.”

Ylva’s family told stories around the fire long ago. Of the Fenrir and their great ancestor Hilda. A young woman, lost and alone in the woods, stalked by a giant wolf. Against all odds, she fought the beast and won. The story said that the goddess Freyja watched the battle in awe of Hilda. She gifted her the strength, agility, and cunning of the wolf as a reward for her bravery.

         But Loki was also watching. Angered that a pitiful human girl murdered his favoured child, he twisted her gifts. Cursed them. 

         It was said that Hilda still had her gifts, but they only emerged one night a month when she became a wolf. But the curse did not end there - Loki also took her memories. A blessing, he insisted, so she did not know of the destruction she caused, the people she slaughtered. 

But all this was just a story. One that she did not tell Kari. She had enough demons to battle in her mind without adding the fairy tales of werewolves and other such fiction. She wondered how she knew of it.

“Kari, the Fenrir is an old story, nothing more. Someone took your father’s life. If it was not you…”

Kari interrupted, “Of course it was not me! I loved Fadir!” Her voice raised enough for the village to hear, enough for Ylva to grab her by the throat to stop her talking.

         “Sssh, girl. Whoever did this meant to frame us. We must be quiet. The village cannot know of this crime.”

         Kari nodded as best she could with her neck in her mother’s vice-like grip. Ylva stared fiercely at her daughter a moment longer before releasing her. 

         Kari coughed as her windpipe expanded again. 

         “Why did you think I killed Fadir?” she croaked.

         Ylva shook her head. “How can you ask me this? All the animal carcasses I have found, the blood on your dresses, the bites on your arms. Your insistence on your connection to the Gods. What else could I assume? But then, doubt crept into my mind when I set about taking him away. Kari, the damage, you would not have the strength. I don’t know who could….”

           Ylva sunk to her knees, finally letting the tears fall.

         Kari closed the space between them and knelt beside her.

         “Oh, Modir, I am so sorry.” Kari cried too, the loss of her father weighing down on her as the strangeness of the night before faded away.

28 days later

The wind whipped around them as they ran. It was a bitter wind, but their fur protected them from the worst of it. 

         They ran with certainty, to the place that called them. When they arrived, the others were already there. All wolves, all distinct colours and sizes. The only thing that didn’t change when they turned were their eyes. Ylva searched for Yrsa. When she found her, she approached the pack leader and bowed. Kari followed suit. 

         Yrsa was the only one who could remember her nights as a wolf and could access her gifts in human form. The others held their wolf memories only on this night. Yrsa knew long before now what was coming at each full moon.

         Kari and Ylva took their places in the circle surrounding their Alpha. Kari looked to her mother and copied each movement carefully to ensure she showed deference to their leader and the more senior members of the pack. 

         Yrsa howled. All the wolves bowed low and lay down in response, Kari trailing milliseconds behind them. Yrsa’s focus caught on her; she growled low: a threat. Kari whimpered in response, snuffling her nose into the ground further.

         Yrsa made her way around each pack member, communicating in silence through their bond before each wolf went away to complete their duties. Some were given specific tasks. Others were simply given the freedom of the wilderness, of the hunt, for the evening.

         Kari was given a simple task for her first turn. Hunt rabbits. Leave them in the village to sustain us over the next month. She disappeared into the forest as instructed.

         Ylva was last to receive her instruction - a slight given younger members of the pack received their instructions before her. Yrsa stood before her in silence—a challenge. 

         Yrsa would not give away who committed the deed; Ylva knew this. But this did not matter. The woman who killed her husband would not remember what she did. In wolf form, she would not defy Yrsa. Even if they did come forward, Ylva had no fight with them; they were simply following orders.

Ylva let out a low growl of defiance. 

         Yrsa responded with a bark-howl, reminding Ylva of her place. She expected this. It was not the first time a pack wolf rebelled against Yrsa, and it would not be the last. Being the Alpha meant making difficult choices for the good of the pack. Egil wanted a son - sons could not become wolves. They had many years to conceive and failed. He failed. Ylva needed a new mate who could provide the pack with more cubs.

         Not that she explained any of this to Ylva. All Ylva needed to know was that her Alpha wanted Egil dead, so it was done. Yrsa kept them all safe. Kept their men compliant. Kept the outsiders from raiding their village. Beasts that terrorised other villages cowered from their land. All she demanded in return was that they worship and obey on the one night when they could remember and appreciate the protection she afforded them. That, in Yrsa’s mind, was more than fair. 

         She didn’t like killing a pack member but would if they upset the dynamic. Their numbers were smaller than they once were, but her status meant more - she could always make new werewolves.

Ylva howled, loud and long. The grief and the rage in it echoed through the forest. It stirred slumbering creatures large and small and sent them scattering far away from the clearing.

         Yrsa heard the message in it. The sadness of Ylva’s loss. The anger at not being able to change anything. The frustration of knowing that she could not avenge her husband without defying Yrsa. 

What she didn’t hear was Kari skulking behind her. Ylva made sure her howl thundered through the forest. Loud enough to cover her daughter’s paw-steps. Before Yrsa could turn, Kari leapt onto her back and bit hard down into her neck. 

         Yrsa growled and bucked. Ylva threw herself forward, teeth first, clamping Yrsa’s jowls shut. She bit down harder, through the Alpha’s nose and ripped away, taking her snout with her. Yrsa yelped. She jumped back and shook wildly, finally throwing Kari off her back. Ylva did not waste a moment. She lurched forward and grabbed onto the wound made by her daughter. Her sharper, adult teeth dug deeper. She found the artery in seconds and ripped away at the Alpha’s throat. 

         Yrsa slumped to the ground, her yelps quiet whimpers until, finally, she was silent. 

         Howls rang through the forest. A goodbye to their old leader. A welcome to their new Alpha. 

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