By E.M. Duffield-Fuller
Svaga had grown hearing stories of the Great Night Wolf by the flickering glow of the fires at night. The Great Night Wolf brings endless famine and darkness, and—as hands scrabbled at shrieking children, tickling them ruthlessly—It will gobble up any naughty chooks who venture away from the safety of the hearth at night.
But it was not her children she had lost to the wolf’s hunger and the black night beyond. It was her husband.
No one knew how the wolf had disappeared, all they knew was the beast had vanished in the heart of the battle and the last war of men was left unfinished. So we are safe then? Svaga had asked Rygar. If it is gone … but Rygar had only shaken his head grimly. I will not leave my battles for my ancestors to fight. I will not spend the blood of my grandchildren because I could not finish my own wars.
She wrapped her furs more closely around her shoulders now, edging her way through the beckoning dark, her mind lingering on Rygar still. Her husband had been strong, broad-chested and wide-shouldered, but his callused hands had always been gentle. They had been soft on her cheeks the night he told her he was leaving for glory, honour and fame immortal—leaving her with his three children, all under five winters old, a fourth already growing fat in her belly. She’d railed and cursed at him, hit and spat at him, but he’d been unflinching. Now he was gone, buried in the mound behind her, and she was heading back to the homestead alone.
Her eyes glanced over her shoulder as if she might still see him there, entombed in that longboat they’d buried deep in the mound behind her. Each plank of it had been etched in runes to freeze it out of time, hung with amulets and sigils warding it from decay, so that the warriors within might rise again when the Great Night Wolf next hunted the children of men, when the world needed them once more. The world needs you now, Rygar—but he’d not seen it like that.
Our lads will be proud to be called Rygarsons, he’d said. They will hear stories of their father forever. And yet, there would be no father left around the fire to tell them those stories. No one to hang his sword up by the door, or sling the flitch, still dripping blood, across his shoulders on slaughter day.
I go for you, to protect you and our children from the Great Night Wolf, he’d said, his hand lingering on the swelling mound of her stomach, but really he had gone only for himself. Because glory was found in grand feats of daring and not in the sleepless nights with the teething infant and the long starving winters when the harvests failed. He leaves me to bear those burdens alone.
He had kissed her one last time tonight, there at the foot of the mound, savage and fierce, as if that one last burst of fire could keep her warm in the lonely years ahead. Even now, hours later, she could feel its pressure tingling there upon her lips, his taste tattooed upon her mouth. His eyes had been bright as he bade her goodbye for the last time and he had not turned back to look at her as he clambered down into the sunken boat, abandoning her bed for a cold and draughty ship and the quiet of the earth. The spell-mage had cast his charms and a net of gold, glowing forge-bright, was thrown over the whole ship until it looked as though it were a funeral pyre. The earth sank over it, covering it from view and Rygar was gone.
Now the forests closed in around her as she walked home alone. The wind sent up its song of mourning and the world wept frozen tears in soft white around her.
Then—a crack of bracken. A damp huff of darkness. She turned, and eyes, as round as the moon, golden and gleaming, stared at her through the hoar-frosted trees. Svaga’s hands fumbled for the hilt of her knife as the beast stepped forwards into the clearing.
The Great Night Wolf was huge. Twice the size of Svaga as she stood trembling beneath the forest skies. Its fur was blacker than the night itself, snow flakes flecked in the thick shag like stars, and beneath that belly, quivering with every hot panting breath, were teats, engorged and sore, still damp from the feed.
Svaga fell to her knees. None of the legends had said she was a female, a mother. They told tales of the beast’s teeth and claws, her golden eyes and blood-stained snout, but not one of them ever thought to mention the nipples protruding from the fur. Had Rygar even noticed such things as he slashed with blade and spear?
The beast approached her, and a hot breath curled around Svaga, sticky and damp, mildewed and stinking with the stench of stale blood. How many warriors have you devoured, She-Wolf?
Svaga waited there upon the floor, kneeling before the beast, but the wolf did not pounce. Svaga hesitated, and then stretched a hand up above her head slowly. Her hand met fur, her fingers buried themselves through the thick strands like summer wheat. She glanced up and saw the wolf’s golden eyes close momentarily in pleasure. The Great Night Wolf bowed her head, her shaggy muzzle resting for the briefest of moments upon Svaga’s swollen stomach, blessing the unborn child within. Then, the Great Night Wolf turned and walked back through the forest the way she had come. Svaga did not follow her.
When her children arose in the morning they found their mother with a golden gleam in her eye and stories of the Great Night Wolf balanced, waiting, on the edge of her lips.
E.M. Duffield-Fuller is an English Literature PhD student at Aberystwyth where she lives with her husband and two sons. She has previously published a fantasy novel, Remnant, under the name E.M. Duffield-Fuller, and a historical romance novel, The Heir of Drymote, under the name Beth Fuller.