The Thief of Faces
Terror doesn’t loosen my bowels any the less just because it’s familiar. I lay in the snow, with my chattering teeth gritted, while the Wolfcoats sniffed about, snarling at one another. Gusts of snow blew between us and when the Wolfcoats were visible again, they were reduced to two. Then the archer crossed the river. He padded right past my hiding place, his bone trinkets jangling and the air steaming around his sharpened teeth.
The other, their leader, stayed a while longer on the ice. He seemed to be staring right at me over his hooked nose. Go away, I urged him with my thoughts.
He sniffed the air. Then he turned into the woods and vanished into the snowy flurries.
I exhaled and cursed my perverse Wyrd. Wulfhedhnar! – and a pack of them.
Berserks are upsetting to be around. They smell bad, have terrible personal habits and you never know when the volcano of rage inside them will erupt. Yet they are genial and sensitive companions compared to the Wulfhedhnar. What was a band of Wolfcoats doing here, so far from the battles and slaughters they enjoy? Then I returned to fretting about how they would find me in the snow, dig me out and chop me to pieces with the Saxon knives they carry – ugly meat cleavers grimed with filth and poison. Or perhaps tear me to pieces with their teeth and nails.
But getting up would be even worse. Then I would be exposed and death would come at me, from behind, on a raven-fledged arrow. I tested my Wyrd by thinking about Lady Gudhrun squeezing my hand and discovered that I was not ready to die quite yet.
I pulled myself out of the drift. The storm had lessened, but the wind still blew snow horizontally across the river. Perhaps bad until it eventually killed me. I crossed back over the ice, hoping my pursuers wouldn’t choose this moment to reconvene. On the other bank, I followed the rising ground towards the cliff. With each step, I sank knee-deep into snow. Fear must have put wings on my feet earlier, because I had seemed to skip over the snow’s surface like an elf with those Wolfcoats snapping at my buttocks.
What were they doing here? Why had they killed my friend?
Here lay poor Hrapp, the arrow in his neck still pointing skywards. He was no less dead than before, so I felt no guilt about stripping him of his skis. I’ve always preferred skates to skis, but I had served King Harald (trolls take him!) up in Trondheim, where they even have a god of skiing and archery, named Ull. I pulled the birch planks off Hrapp’s feet, strapping on the long gliding ski then the short pushing ski. I spent some time casting about for his ski pole under the fresh snow.
Slowly does it! I had not been on skis since before losing my eye. I pushed away confidently – and slammed into a tree.
Pushing away again, I knocked myself over on a low branch.
I sat up, rubbing my bruises and cursing the fickle god Ull. But the fault was mine. My one eye, which couldn’t aim an arrow, could no longer judge which trees were near or far. I needed an open space to make my getaway. Walking instead of sliding, I made my cautious way back to the frozen river.
Better luck was at hand. No grey-pelted Wolfcoats loomed out of the woods. The wind had dropped and snow fell vertically now. The river was white and bare.
I took huge strides to get myself out to the middle of the river, then pushed off. The long ski made that wonderful hissing noise and I pushed with the short one, adding speed with each thrust. Snowflakes seemed to streak past. If my jaw had allowed it, I would have laughed out loud.
Something else hissed by my ear. It was an arrow. I looked back. The archer stood on the ice some distance behind, drawing back his bow. Another wolfish figure bounded from the bank.
It was a test of speed now – and for speed, birch skis are unmatched. The hiss of the skis became a high pitched whistle but it was joined by another shrill sound – the shriek of the Wolfcoat closing in on my flank.
The river curved and I curved with it, leaning into the pole and sending up sparkling ice dust as I turned. The Wolfcoat, without skis, had no choice about his direction. He flashed through the mist I left behind me and slammed into the rocks along the river bank. His shrieks cut off suddenly.
An arrow fell into the snow nearby. The archer was taking aim again, but I was nearly out of range. More speed, I told myself, and don’t look back.
Twin howls broke out behind me, one near, the other more distant. It was the Wolfcoats, venting their frustration. Another bend in the river appeared in front. More speed, I reminded myself, and don’t look back.
Except I looked back. Of course I looked back.
Over my shoulder, I saw the archer running across the ice to his comrade, sprawled on the rocks. Both figures were small and getting smaller. Before falling snow hid them, I saw the bowman slip and slide across the ice, crashing into his friend. It looked painful and humiliating and worth looking back for.
I returned my attention to the route ahead. The third Wolfcoat blocked my path, arms wide to grab me.
I yelled and turned, leaning away from his clutches. The Wolfcoat leapt at me and grabbed me as I shot past. His nails tore at my arm and the ski pole flew out of my hand. Something snapped. The ground, so smooth a moment ago, bucked us both into the air. I landed with the Wolfcoat on top of me, then I was on top of him. We rolled together. My enemy gnashed his teeth. I wailed like a babe in the cradle.
Over we went together, bouncing and sliding. Then the worst sound of all: another crack, like my snapped ski, only louder and deeper. The ice was breaking.
The Wolfcoat and I slid to a halt. We lay for a moment, only a foot apart, he on his belly and me on my back. We turned our heads and looked at one another. He was a young man. He had a hooked nose and a long chin. When his lips parted, I saw his teeth had been filed to dainty points.
I exhaled and so did he. Our breath misted together. I ventured a friendly grin. Were about to burst into laughter together at this silly misunderstanding? Or would he try to kill me again?
When he lunged for me, I had already scrambled out of reach. The ground tilted. Freezing water lapped my ankles. The hook-nosed Wolfcoat slid towards me while the ice behind him rose up.
If I hadn’t been wearing the skis, I would have lost my balance and fallen into the river. Instead, I scrambled away from the water, taking big strides on the tilting surface. The ice righted itself again, but I could feel it bobbing under my feet.
I stood on a circular platform of ice. The Wolfcoat slid off the edge but his nails scrabbled at the surface and caught hold. Glaring at me, he pulled himself back onto the platform and crouched there, his breath steaming.
We faced each other, me on two legs, him on all fours and maybe a half dozen paces between us. The ice platform shifted under our weight but between us we kept it balanced. Underneath, the waters roared and frothed. The surrounding ice had cracked too, but into smaller chunks that bobbed up and down, like ships on a high tide swell.
My long ski was broken. The front half hung by splinters.
I raised my palms towards the Wolfcoat in a peaceful gesture.
“This is a dangerous situation, Brother Wolf.” I forced a merry note into my voice. “Perhaps, a truce, while we get off this ice?”
He was already leaping at me. Without his weight, the ice at his end rose up with a whoosh. My side plunged into the churning water and took me with it.
There’s nothing like freezing water rushing up your nethers to make you think again. The ice platform reared up like an overturning boat and started to spin. The Wolfcoat’s furious eyes were inches from mine. He had grabbed a handhold and, when he lashed out with his free hand, his ragged nails tore away my jaw-bandage.
A strange game ensued. I pulled myself round the edge of the ice, which sank with my weight, while the Wolfcoat, clinging to the middle of it, hissed and clawed at me.
This could have gone on for a while. I saw a way to end it. I let go, grabbing at any other floating ice within reach.
Without my weight on it, the submerged edge of our platform shot up, then crashed down, then the whole thing see-sawed violently. When the ice settled, I was pleased to see it was empty. The Wolfcoat had been thrown off.
This was good, but I’d be joining him in a moment, because my furs were soaked and I can’t swim. I grabbed the ice platform then dragged myself over the lip.
I expected the ice to see-saw again, but it remained level. There was an explanation: my wolfish companion, bedraggled but still alive, was pulling himself onto the other side.
We stared at each other thoughtfully from opposite edges of the ice. I reached out for another handhold to pull myself over the lip. This made my end sink again and his end rise. Panic filled his eyes and his nails scrabbled on the surface. He found a grip and dragged himself further onto it. This balanced the platform and the see-sawing slowed.
Our strange dance entered a new stage. Without speaking, we coordinated our movements, each of us dragging ourselves onto the ice inch by inch, until we both crouched, facing each other, soaking wet and breathing heavily.
It was time to put a stop to this. I pulled out Tunga. I waggled the sword in his direction to make sure he understood. I was armed: he was not.
The Wolfcoat gnashed his teeth. I remember Ogmund shouting that blades couldn’t touch him; this was said of the Wulfhedhnar too, that you had to crack their skulls with hammers to kill them. Even if this wasn’t true, the Wolfcoat probably believed it to be true, so my sword wouldn’t scare him.
He had already attacked before I’d finished these deliberations. This time he slid across the slippery surface, making the platform tilt less. I chopped at him with all my strength but missed and the sword embedded itself in the ice. The Wolfcoat’s claws snatched at my wet cloak, but then he slipped past me. I clung onto the jammed sword for balance.
The Wolfcoat slid right to the edge and the ice platform dipped under his weight. The water bubbled up round his knees.
Holding onto the sword with one hand, I ripped away my broken ski, a birch wood plank about three feet long.
The Wolfcoat swayed back and forth, waving his arms as the ice sank underneath him.
I stretched the plank towards him, waving it in front of his hands.
He blinked in surprise. The ice groaned. He slipped. Even Wolfcoats panic. He snatched at the support I offered him. A faint smile turned his thin lips when he felt me take his weight.
Of course, then I let go.
He fell with a roar and a splash. I saw him, briefly, under the ice, shooting past in the fast current. On the other side, his head popped up, only to be whacked by one of the other floating ice chunks. After that, he was gone, leaving a rocking chunk of ice with a smear of blood down its side.
And the moral is, never turn down the first truce.
My platform swayed a few more times as I worked to free the sword. It came loose at last. I made my clumsy way to the shore, hopping between shifting ice. The water in my furs had frozen. I would be freezing next. There was no hope of getting back to Thurstang before the Frost Giants snipped away my fingers and toes or the remaining Wolfcoats found my scent again.
I rested against a tree and gabbled some calming runes. Murdered babies and now Wolfcoats. How could it get worse?
I scanned the treetops for a landmark but everything was hidden by fresh snow. Except, behind the pines, a faint plume of smoke smudged the winter sky. Poor Hrapp Squintbrow had mentioned a lodge nearby. With the shadows lengthening, I trudged into the woods to find a warm hearth, my ears alert for the howls of my pursuers.
If I’d known what was ahead, I would have stayed on the ice.