The Dire Wolf
by M J Robertson
Part I – The Rider
The girl paced up and down, though she knew it wasn’t seemly, it wasn’t ladylike, and she did want to appear like a lady, didn’t she? Is that what he liked, is that what he wanted?
Did she truly really care what he wanted? Was she really that invested in the idea? In truth, it had come completely out of the blue. He’d asked to see her, late at night, after the rest of the village had gone to sleep. It was so strange, so out of character, part of her was only going to fulfill her curiosity. The rest of her was going because… it was him.
She’d had to sneak out of the house, past her parents, past the Night Watch. It hadn’t been hard, Tala had always been good at hide and seek, this was just adding an extra element to the game.
He was coming, wasn’t he? This wasn’t some kind of trick, some kind of joke? No, Wulf wasn’t like that; he wouldn’t make fun of her. He wouldn’t trick her, desert her, tell everyone how he’d gotten her to sneak out alone at night… would he?
Why… why was she so anxious? Was it just the fear of getting caught, or was it the prospect of meeting Wulf, alone, after dark? She felt so tense. She held in a deep breath, trying in vain to calm herself as he watched her hands shake in front of her eyes, swallowing uncomfortably as her dinner lurched about inside her stomach.
She wished she had something to steady her nerves. She didn’t understand, why was she suddenly feeling so nervous? It was… she didn’t want to get caught, to be seen out after curfew. That had to be it. The girl swallowed her quivering unease and convinced herself. That’s all it was; it had nothing to do with who she was about to meet, or what he had planned.
It was a certainly a risk, sneaking out like this. If they were discovered, they’d be jailed for the rest of the night, until their parents came to collect them in the morning—hardly a romantic prospect. Even if they were placed in the same cell—which was doubtful—it would be cold, dark, damp. They wouldn’t even be able to talk; if they made any noise at all, the guard would come in and beat them.
Where was he? Had he been caught? Was he really coming? What was he thinking, taking this risk? Was this really his idea of a date? Most boys would have waited for the solstice and asked her to the festival, but she supposed Wulf wasn’t like most boys. Maybe he wanted it to be their secret; maybe he wanted her all to himself, away from the eyes of their peers. She didn’t even know he thought about her like that. The girl stifled a giggle. The two had known each other for so long; there was no denying they were close, but she’d never thought about him like that, either.
Then she heard it, a harsh whisper.
It was calling her. She turned to look. There he was: Wulf. She ran over to meet him, unable to wipe the smile from her lips. It didn’t cross her mind to be concerned that the boy’s expression was far more sober.
He looked upon her, a sour expression dressing his face. What was wrong, did he not like her dress? It was the best she could do at such short notice, and given the requirement that she needed to be able to move quickly and quietly. He was the one that had forced her to sneak out in the dead of the night. She weighed her indignance at the boy’s unrealistic expectations, against her disappointment at own inability to meet them, in her inability to please him. Both feelings weighed on her chest, though she couldn’t decide which was the greater burden, so she voiced neither, keeping her words silent, safe, along with her dignity.
“I didn’t expect you to dress up,” Wulf said, taking her aback. It was clear that he hadn’t gone to any such trouble.
Had Tala misunderstood his intent? Was she stupid to think he’d seriously asked her out on a date?
“Of course,” she mumbled morosely. So much for sparing herself any further embarrassment. “Wulf would never ask me out.”
The boy looked at her for a moment, staring in silence, taking her in, considering her words. “You thought…?”
“Don’t you dare laugh.”
“I… you’d actually agree to a date with me?”
“Well… I’m here, aren’t I?” Honestly, what kind of question was that?
“But you’re so popular. I suppose I always figured I was beneath you.”
“Beneath me? Come on, Wulf, how long have we known each other? You know I’ve always got time for you.”
“You used to, when we were younger.”
Used to? It was true that the two of them hadn’t spent much time together lately. When they were younger, it had been just the two of them. More recently, as they’d grown older, perhaps they had started to grow apart; Tala had never thought about it, taking their friendship for granted. She’d figured they would always have each other to turn to, should either of them need it.
As they’d grown older, Tala had become much more popular, especially with the boys of the village. Since then, she hadn’t seen as much of Wulf. He didn’t hold that against her, did he?
This midnight invitation had caught her by surprise; it had come out of seemingly nowhere. Was this Wulf’s way of getting her alone? Perhaps he was put off by the numbers that always seemed to gather around her these days. Wulf had never been a fan of large crowds; he’d always been somewhat solitary. His family liked to keep to themselves.
Did Wulf truly believe he was unworthy of her? Did he think she believed that? Tala had to admit, the thought stung a bit. “I’m not some stuck up princess, you know.”
“Does your father know that? I don’t think he likes me, I see him staring; he always has this look in his eye, like he suspects me of something.”
“I wouldn’t take it seriously, Wulf. He suspects everyone of something. I suppose that’s part of his job, but he knows you, right? He trusts you. We’ve been best friends forever.”
“Does he? I’m no so sure.”
“hmm, well…” Tala didn’t risk everything to sneak out here just to discuss her father, did she? She made to change the subject, but even as she opened her mouth to speak, she could feel herself starting to blush. Thankfully, Wulf wouldn’t notice in the darkness of the night; at least, she hoped he wouldn’t. “Why did you want to see me?”
Wulf didn’t answer right away; he was avoiding her eye. Was he just as embarrassed as she was? “I need to tell you something,” Wulf finally said, “something important.”
“What is it?” Tala didn’t like the solemn look Wulf was giving her. There was something behind those deep, blue eyes; a kind of horror. Was it fear? What was he afraid of, what was wrong?”
“I… I got a letter.”
Tala quirked a brow. “A letter, from who? Is it about your father?”
Wulf didn’t answer, not right away.
Tala stepped closer, placing a hand on his shoulder, bringing their heads together, looking deeply into his eyes as she waited for him to break the silence.
Finally, he did. “It has his seal… the crimson eagle.”
Tala’s eyes widened, her head slowly shaking, their proximity making it seem as though she were nuzzling her forehead against his.
The imperial seal?
No, surely not.
Tala drowned in the depth of Wulf’s eyes. His next words came out as barely more than a whisper, but she heard them clearly, as if he’d shouted them at her. They took her breath away, winding her, choking her. It felt like she really was drowning.
“I’ve been conscripted.”
The colour seemed to drain from all around her; her body went numb. She could no longer feel the warmth of Wulf’s skin on hers.
She barely noticed the approaching light as it surrounded them, inevitable as dawn, coming from behind.
Tala’s breath hitched as she felt a pair of arms enclose tightly around her, their grip constricting, yanking her, pulling her away from Wulf. Tala was like a fish caught in a net, hauled out of the water.
They’d been caught!
“I told you to keep away from her, boy!”
That was her father’s voice. Tala supposed he had a right to be angry; he’d caught Wulf sneaking around with his daughter after dark. Still, wasn’t he overreacting just a bit?
The next thing she knew, Wulf was on the ground. There was a man on top of him, restraining him, holding him down.
Tala struggled against the hands that bound her, breaking free; she rushed toward Wulf, “Don’t hurt him!” she cried, pleading to the men. “Wulf!”
Tala was yanked roughly off path and turned around, forced around. Rough, calloused hands gripped her tightly by the shoulders, and she looked up to meet her father’s angry eyes, blanching as that stern, furious expression bore through her. Had he truly been this worried about her?
The next thing she knew was his hand, coming straight for her; the back of his hand across her face.
The girl woke with a start. She was in bed, a tall figure standing over her, shaking her, gripping her harshly by the shoulders.
“Wake up!” the figure hissed. Tala focused in the darkness; it was her mother.
“What’s going on?” Tala asked, her sleepy voice coming out soft and groggy. That dream; why had she dreamed of that night?
That was the last time she’d seen Wulf; she hadn’t even been able to say goodbye, her father had seen to that. Tala had been kept at home, under lock and key as it came and went: the carriage, Wulf’s carriage. It had come for him, taken him away; from Tala, from his mother, from them all, never to be seen again.
It had been three years and no one had heard from him. Like father, like son. Tala didn’t even know whether he was still alive. She always thought they’d been so close, best friends since birth, but he’d never written. Not even once.
Had he been mad at her, for not coming to see him off, for not being there to say goodbye? She had wanted to, she’d begged Father to let her go, but he refused, again and again. That had been her punishment for sneaking out. Locked in her room, it was over a month before she saw daylight.
That single act of disobedience had cost her her greatest and oldest friendship.
Wulf had disappeared, without a word, without a trace. It was amazing how much he’d taken after his father; Tala didn’t think she resembled hers at all.
Tala looked up at her mother. She looked scared, like Wulf had been that night. What was going on?
“Come on!” the woman cried, pulling Tala out of bed. “We have to hurry!”
“What is it, what’s wrong?”
“We’re under attack!” Tala’s brow furrowed, not understanding. Her tired mind couldn’t make the connection.
“Who’s under attack?”
“We are, all of us, the village!”
The village was under attack, what about the soldiers? Surely the army would protect them.
“The army! The Empire!”
Tala froze, the last remnants of sleep falling away, that shock waking her as abruptly as a bucket of ice water.
“W-why?” They were the last settlement before the northern border, close to the edge, but they were still part of the Empire. There was no way; the soldiers that were supposed to protect them, they were the ones attacking them? It… it didn’t make sense.
“There’s no time! We have to hide!”
“What about Father?”
“He…” her mother sighed, “he’s not here.” What did she mean by that?
“You mean he’s out there…?” Tala asked, unable to voice the ‘Or’ that had been on the tip of her tongue. He wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be dead. He had to be out there, somewhere.
“Yes, now Come on!”
Mother pulled her roughly out of bed, out of the room, and down the stairs; Tala didn’t even have time to get dressed. Her mother tossed her a robe to wrap around herself and hurried her along.
Sleepily, she stumbled down the stairs, her mother leading her, guiding her, pushing her. Down into the living room, into the cellar, under the house.
Mother closed the door, barring it, locking them in, sealing them in darkness.
Tala looked around the pitch-black room as her mother set to lighting the candles that lined the walls. At the far end of the room there were crates and barrels stacked up against the wall. The barrels were undoubtedly filled with Ale; her father often invited friends and acquaintances down here in the evenings. The Crates… Tala wasn’t sure; she supposed they must have contained food, or perhaps supplies for brewing more ale; her mother was skilled in the art.
Tala had never been down here before; her father had forbidden her from ever entering the Cellar, and so she hadn’t, she’d never even hazarded a glance.
Tala always wondered what they did in this room: her father and his friends. She didn’t suppose she’d ever find out the truth. Would father have let her come down when she was older? Somehow, she didn’t think so.
The two had settled in the center of the room, huddled together, sitting in silence, in fear, waiting out the long night.
They both rose with a start at the sound of someone entering the house, sharing a brief glance. Tala jumped to her feet, turning to face the door, the stairway. Was it Father? Had he come home, had he come to check on them? She made for the door, but Mother stopped her, gripping her by the shoulders, bony fingers piercing her flesh.
Mother dragged her to the back of the room without a word, pushing her into a closet, a finger raised to her lips. Tala looked into her mother’s panic-stricken eyes and nodded her head; she understood, she wouldn’t make a sound. They didn’t know for sure that it was Father coming in, they could only hope.
Tala’s eyes wandered over to the door. The sounds from upstairs died down. She closed her eyes and prayed that they were safe, prayed that if there were soldiers raiding the house, that they had taken what they wanted and left; she prayed that father would be home soon, that he would come through that door and tell them that it was all right, that the soldiers were gone, that it was over.
She opened her eyes to stare once again at the sickly silence emanating from the cellar door. At that very moment, it crashed open—broken down, forced. This wasn’t Father. Tala looked to her Mother just in time to taste the fear filling the woman’s eyes, before the closet door closed between them, sealing Tala in dark seclusion, submerging her in a tense, unbearable, unknowable solitude.
What followed was a blur. Tala heard a commotion, a noise. Then she heard something that chilled her to the core.
Her mother screamed. Tala’s hair stood on end. Her blood crackled like lightning. She felt cold, nauseous; her movements felt slow, like she was in a dream, like reality was warping around her. What was happening? This couldn’t be real.
Inching forward, Tala pushed the door open a crack and peeked through the gap. What was going on? It was so hard to see.
Suddenly, the door was wrenched from her. She tumbled out of the closet, landing in a crumpled heap on the ground.
She looked up, hoping to see father looking down at her, perhaps a rare twinkle of bemusement in his eye; she’d even settle for disappointment, or anger, anything; but the eyes that looked down at her didn’t belong to her father, nor anyone else she recognized.
Her eyes roamed the darkness, searching frantically, but she didn’t see him; he wasn’t there. It had only been a fool’s hope, but she carried the weight of disappointment all the same. Disappointment served to keep the fear at bay.
There were men in the house, but nobody she knew. These weren’t father’s friends, they weren’t men of the Watch, they weren’t even villagers searching for somewhere to hide. They wore armor: imperial armor. They carried shields, emblazoned with the emblem of a blood red eagle: the emperor’s sigil, the emperor’s men.
It was the Army!
There were several men standing about the room, six in total. What were they all doing? Would nobody come to help? Where was the Watch? Where was Father? They couldn’t be… he couldn’t be dead.
Tala’s eyes roamed the room, scouring, frantic, squinting in the low light, searching for—She locked onto the sight of her mother, over there, on the far side of the room, on her back. One of the men stood over her, leaned over her, touched her. Mother cried out as soon as he put his hands on her. The sound made Tala wince, It made her shudder, it was haunting.
Tala flinched as she felt a hand grab her by the wrist, as she was hoisted up, pulled roughly to her feet by the man that stood over her, by the man that had found her hiding in the closet. His painful, vice-like grip would surely leave a bruise.
The man pulled her along behind him, manipulating her like a rag doll, knocking her off her feet. He flung her across the room as though she weighed nothing at all. He threw her to the ground, over to her mother.
Tala screamed as she fell through the air, eyes closed, bracing for the impact; body clenching, terrified of whatever might come next.
Tala found herself alone, in bed, throat hoarse, muscles tense, still awaiting the impact of that hard ground, eyes scanning the room frantically for those men, those soldiers.
She didn’t see any.
Her body, as well as her sheets, were drenched in sweat.
It had been a dream. A nightmare.
She was safe, in her own home. She was alone. Nobody was there to hurt her.
She peeled the damp sheet from her body and rolled over, collapsing onto her front, shedding fresh, silent tears that ran down her cheeks, burning hot against the cool night air.
After taking a moment to compose herself, Tala climbed out of bed and reached for a nearby robe, wrapping it loosely around herself, covering her bare skin. She crossed the room and took the lantern suspended from the ceiling, before venturing downstairs.
She poured herself a drink and took a seat, resting her head in her hands.
That dream, that nightmare, that memory; it had been five years since that night. She thought she’d put it behind her. For how long would it continue to haunt her?
Five long years. How would her life have turned out if that night hadn’t happened, if the army hadn’t attacked? Tala raised the cup to her lips and took a large gulp. It didn’t matter. What good was yearning for the past, wishing for things to be different? Wishes never came true; things were just the way they were. All anyone could really do was try to make the most of the blessings they had been given, and it wasn’t as though she had no reason to be thankful. There were many people worse off than she was. Even if she had lost her home, her family, her friends; at least she had a roof over her head. She was alive, she was safe, and this house: it was hers. That was more than could be said for some people.
Tala took another drink, eyes closed, resting her face in her hands.
“Wulf…” she said, voicing her thoughts to the empty room, “What happened to you?”
Wulf: the boy who’d been shipped off to serve in the army; the army that had attacked their home. Part of her had hoped to see him back then, when the soldiers arrived in the village. She’d known it was unlikely; still, she couldn’t resist hoping, wishing to catch a glimpse of him in that imperial armour, to catch his eye as the platoon passed through, or hear his voice calling her name. Ever since that night: the last time they’d been together, it was as though he’d just disappeared without a trace. Like father, like son. Tala allowed herself a bitter smirk before taking another swig.
Of course, that was before she learned of the army’s true purpose, before they’d shown their true colours, before the massacre. With that knowledge in mind, perhaps it was for the best that Wulf hadn’t been there. Tala couldn’t imagine what it would be like if he had been, if he’d been ordered to sack his own home, to attack his neighbours, his family, his friends… his mother.
Tala wondered how that woman had fared. She wished she’d gotten to know her better; now she’d never get the chance. Wulf’s mother had most likely ended up the same as her own. That wasn’t a pleasant thought; Tala quickly washed it down, draining her cup, not wanting the taste to linger. Finishing her drink, she poured herself another.
Tala never had visited the woman. She’d always meant to, after Wulf was sent away, just to check in, to make amends, to have someone to talk to, someone she knew had actually cared about Wulf. Who knew, maybe he’d have written to his mother; he’d never written to Tala.
Tala had always meant to visit her, but she never had. Unable to build up the nerve, she’d put it off, and the longer she’d put it off for, the more daunting the task had seemed. Without the link of their children’s friendship, the two families drifted apart.
Tala finished her second drink and rested her head upon the table, suddenly sleepy once again.
“Wulf,” she murmured, her voice coming out in a soft, smooth whisper, “where did you go? Why didn’t you ever write?”
Slowly, Tala’s eyes closed, and she drifted once more into the shadowy embrace of sleep, lethargy claiming her as its own as her consciousness phased through the table and back into the dark void of dreams.