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Nightwolf
Author: Karina Halle

 

Prologue

 

 

Kingdom of Norway, 1696

 

 

The boy was afraid.

Despite sharing the small loft with his older brother, Asmund, and his sister Eira, their close proximity as they snored away in their beds did nothing to disperse the sense of heavy dread in the air, hanging above him like thunder clouds.

It felt like something was sitting on his chest, pressing down on his heart and lungs until he couldn’t get any air in, and when he opened his eyes to the darkness, he was certain he could see something perched on top of him, a creature black and winged and ominous.

Mara. He was warned about them, he just didn’t believe in them, these demon witches that came into your bed at night, bringing with them misfortune, death and bad dreams, whispering evil things and singing scary lullabies.

Mara.

Then, as his eyes adjusted to the thin moonlight coming through the window, he realized there was nothing there at all.

The boy took in a deep shaking breath, his lungs capable again, and then slowly sat up. The loft was cold, his labored breathing causing ice crystals to form in front of his eyes. Even though the fire from the central hearth below tended to die out in the middle of the night, the heat was usually trapped up top with them. He’d never felt cold like this before, not in September.

He looked to his brother and sister, sleeping in their narrow beds, the hay stuffing askew beneath the woolen blankets. In the dim light they looked peaceful, sleeping soundly, though their breath also froze in the air. Thirty years from now, when the boy turned thirty-five, he wouldn’t have to worry about temperatures hurting him, but for now, he was shivering.

Not just from the chill.

Because there was someone else in the loft with them.

One minute there was nothing there, the next a shadow appeared in front of the lone narrow window.

The figure of a man.

A man without a head.

The boy opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out. Not even air. He could only stare wide-eyed at the headless figure blocking the light of the moon.

Yet, for all the raw terror that was pulsing through his body, there was also this heavy sense of grief and sadness. It radiated out from the headless figure like smoke and the boy could feel the grief sinking into his skin, altering him from the inside out.

Go away, the boy thought, and his words were shaking from fear in his own head. Go away, go away, go away.

The headless figure just stared. Even though he had no head, the boy could still feel eyes on him. It was like the figure was sizing him up.

Like he wants to take me to the Red World, the boy thought. Where I will be torn apart, limb from limb, and eaten alive.

But then the figure turned to the side and walked across the loft, making no sound on the wood floors, and started down the ladder toward the ground floor.

The boy watched, frozen in place, until the headless man disappeared below. Then he sprung out of bed and ran over to the edge, peering over to see the figure walk across the packed earth floor, past the bed where his father and mother were in a deep sleep, toward the door.

Something about the way the headless figure turned toward his father as he passed him, something about the way he moved, made that sick sense of despair return, a feeling so powerful that the boy nearly fell to his knees.

Yet, as he watched the headless man open the door and walk out into the night, the boy was quick to follow. He wasn’t fearless—that would mean he had no fear and he had that in spades—but he acted in spite of the fear. Brave would be a word for it, so would curiosity. Whatever he was, he scrambled down the ladder and ran after the man, out into the chilled night air.

Just in time for the headless man to step into a slice of moonlight and dissolve into a flock of ravens. The large black birds flew in every direction, the sound of their beating wings filling the air, until all that was left was the small garden in front of the house, moonlit frost on the curves of ripe squash.

The boy stood there, dumbfounded. How could the man just disappear like that? Turn into birds? Never mind the fact that he was missing a head. The boy knew the world held unexplainable, dangerous and strange things—his family included—and yet he’d never seen anything like this.

Never felt anything like it either.

The sorrow, grief, despair. It still clung to him like bonfire smoke.

“What is my nightwolf doing?” his father’s sleep-tired voice came from behind him.

Wolf felt another current of dread run through him at the sound of his father’s voice, though he couldn’t quite place why. Nothing so far was making any sense.

Wolf closed the door to the night and looked over at his father in bed with his mother, lit faintly by the dying embers of the hearth.

“I thought I heard something,” Wolf said, chin raised, not wanting his father to think he was scared.

But his father was intuitive. Wolf was brave, even when he wasn’t, and it was a cruel world, but he was only five years old. Still a little boy. His father adjusted himself in the bed, and gestured with a hearty wave of his arm for his youngest son to come over.

Wolf hesitated, wanting to be strong, then his age got the best of him. He scurried across the floor to the bed and got in between his parents. His mother was on her side, in deep sleep, but his father put his arm around Wolf and held him close, pulling the blanket over him.

“You sure you heard something?” his father asked him in a low voice. “Because I didn’t. And you know I can hear everything.”

Wolf nodded, swallowing hard. He couldn’t go back on his word now and say that he saw something rather than heard something.

It was probably all a dream anyway, Wolf thought. No one would dare come into this house with my father right here. My father is more powerful than anyone. He is a god. He can live forever. And one day, I’ll live forever too. No one will ever be able to hurt us.

“One day I’ll live forever,” Wolf found himself whispering as he fell asleep in his father’s arms. “Just like you. We’ll be together forever.”

“That’s right, my little nightwolf,” his father said, kissing his forehead. “Now get some sleep.”

The boy closed his eyes.

The world started to drift away.

But those feelings he had earlier, the ones of grief, sorrow, doom and despair?

They stayed.

 

 

The next morning, Wolf had a hard time remembering what brought him into his parents’ bed in the middle of the night. He chalked it up to a bad dream, and tried to explain away the depth of unwanted and scary feelings that rolled around inside him. Those same feelings of sadness and dread still lingered without cause.

Sensing this, as he sensed a lot of things normal humans couldn’t, Wolf’s father invited the boy out into the woods to pick mushrooms with him. This was usually something he did alone, so Wolf felt proud and important that he was chosen to go along, especially as Asmund and Eira were tasked with helping their mother harvest the garden.

Father and son set off towards the woods at the back of the house. They lived many miles from the nearest town and kept entirely to themselves, his parents only venturing to nearby settlements when they needed to feed, which wasn’t that often. There were no other houses near them in the narrow valley between alpine mountains, dotted with meadows, moss, and rows of tall, fragrant pine. It didn’t belong to them—nothing in nature did—but they used it as respectfully as possible. Wolf’s family felt they were as one with nature as any of the creatures that lived in the wild, no different than a bear or the deer that fed in the meadows.

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