15. Wolf Moon
Sigrun's prediction of colder weather came true: a hard frost set in and every morning the sun rose pitilessly bright and without warmth. It was too cold for any fresh snow to fall, but the constant wind drove fine-grained old snow through our cloaks and mufflers like needles of ice. Metal stuck to bare fingers at a touch. Every day we had to tread a new path to the byre through the blown drifts, and the sharp-edged waves of snow rising up outside the palisade made it impossible to open the gate wide enough for a horse to pass. I wore Elfhelm's green cloak with gratitude, although even its fur lining could not completely banish the cold.
By the third night of this weather, everyone in the steading was sleeping in the main hall close by the hearth. Still, we were burning wood at a profligate rate to keep the air from freezing. My face was numb and my feet chunks of stone as Sigrun and I huddled together under all our blankets, with the green cloak laid over top. I could see our breath rise like steam from a boiling pot.
"How long can this last?" I asked Sigrun, trying to rub some warmth into her thin arms.
"Can't say," she mumbled through stiff lips. "Usually the cold breaks with the full moon. If we're unlucky, it could last for another month."
It was late, but we were not the only ones still awake; Ashwyn was alternately coughing and crying as her mother tried to soothe her. The deep rattle developing in the girl's chest sounded like the beginning of the shaking fever. I shut my eyes and tried not to think about what could happen if sickness started to spread.
Hereward's fever had reached the highest peak I'd ever seen. He felt hot enough to set the blankets afire. I wrung a cloth out in melted snow water and dabbed it on his cracked lips, letting a few drops trickle into his mouth.
I had guessed rightly two days ago; Ashwyn had the shaking fever, and soon old Egil showed signs of it. At least both of them had the common sort, instead of the unusually swift kind that had swept through Edoras five years ago and killed my mother. If it followed the normal course and settled most heavily on the children and old ones, I had hoped we should muddle through.
Then Hereward had fallen ill. Within the space of a few hours he blazed with fever. By the end of the day, he was deep in delirium, crying out for his mother. I tried to hide my terror; the others did not know what we might face and I did not want to frighten them. Sigrun and I had taken care to lay his bedding as far from the other sick ones as we could, and we let no one but the two of us tend him.
The door boomed in its frame with a crashing thud. I went on laving Hereward's face. If Dunlendings were about to knock down our walls and kill us, well and good. All I asked was that they do it quietly. I heard loud voices, but didn't bother listening for the sense of the words.
Sigrun laid her hand on my shoulder and I jumped. "What is it?" I snapped.
"Wulfred is here and wants to speak with you," she said. "I told him that you were busy, but he insists."
I scrubbed my hands against my skirts and stood up. I was too exhausted for courtesy; Master Wulfred was about to get an earful. His terrified expression, however, shook me enough to remember that there were troubles in this world besides ours. "What is it? Are there raiders abroad?"
He cleared his throat before speaking, and still his voice was rough with tension. "My younger daughter -- Ulrika -- she has the shaking fever that you nursed Leofwyn through. I've come to beg your help. Will you ride back with me? I've brought fast horses."
I pinched the bridge of my nose hard, trying to banish the ache in my head. "Master Wulfred, as you can plainly see, we have the same sickness here. I can't leave Sigrun to care for all of these people by herself--"
"Please!" He grasped at my sleeve. "Ulrika is only a child, and she needs your help."
I drew back, shrugging his hand off my arm. "I understand, but Hereward is also ill and I cannot leave him. Ask Helga or Francha; if either will go, you may take them with my blessing. They are both skilled at caring for the sick."
He shook his head. "I want someone who knows what she is doing."
"I cannot help you. Keep Ulrika warm and make her drink as much as possible. That is all I could do in any case, even if I were to come with you."
"What if I brought her here? Would you care for her then?"
I stared at him. He didn't look mad. "If she is that ill, taking her out into the cold will only kill her more quickly."
"You haven't seen her. She is so close to death…" He swallowed. "I will risk anything."
I shrugged. "If you are determined to do such a foolish thing, I will care for her. But she is more likely to die on the way." I hoped my harsh words would make Wulfred reconsider his reckless idea. Ulrika might well die no matter what he did, but a journey through this cold – even the short distance from Ulfdale to here – would make it a near certainty.
I turned away without bidding Wulfred farewell, and returned to Hereward.
The next morning as I crouched by the hearth, half-asleep over a cup of the thin pottage that was the only food we had time to make, the door banged open. Wulfred crossed our threshold, carrying his daughter wrapped in so many furs she made a nearly round bundle.
The fear in Wulfred's bloodshot eyes was the first thing I had seen in him to admire. "Sigrun is an excellent nurse, and I have done my share as well. We will care for Ulrika," I told him as warmly as I could. "Would you like to ride back? You could return with one of your own maids to help her feel more at home."
Wulfred rubbed his hands over his face. "I don't want to leave her so soon. Let me stay for the night, if you would. Perhaps tomorrow I will fetch a serving maid."
In the morning Ulrika was no better, of course, and her father still did not want to leave. I could not blame him, but I did not much like the prospect of Wulfred as a guest. Nor did his temper improve as the bitter cold kept us all penned together in close quarters. I understood his fatherly concern, but I objected to the way he snapped at Helga and Sigrun. They were not serfs of his household to be ordered about.
Ulrika and Hereward worsened in close stages, as though they were racing each other toward death. For a day and a night none of us -- Wulfred, Sigrun, nor I -- slept.
On the morning of the third day Ulrika's fever broke. Hereward still burned. Sigrun watched me lave his face with cool water and shook her head. "You know that won't do any good for him now," she told me. "Rest, and I'll stay with the lad." She took the cloth from my hand.
"No," I said, my voice scraping in my dry throat. "I want to be with him at the end."
But my body could not rise to the demands I'd made of it over the last week. I drifted in and out of wakefulness, finding my hand lying in the bowl. The second time I nearly overset the basin, Sigrun took me by the shoulders and told me to stop being a stubborn chit. I gave in, but only after she promised to wake me when Hereward reached the last stage and his breathing began to falter.
I rolled into a sausage of blankets by the hearth and pulled the green cloak over my head. Exhaustion left my eyes dry; I could not weep. I stared at the flames until they wavered and spread into a sheet of fire over my sight.
Shouts woke me from a confused tangle of dreams. I wrestled out of my pile of blankets and sat up, as Serulf ran to the door and wrenched it open. Wind blasted through the hall. The fire roared up then guttered down nearly to embers. Was he mad? I shouted at him to shut the door.
"Wolves! They're in among the sheep!" he bellowed.
Wolves inside the gate? Impossible, unless they'd grown thumbs, found axes, and chopped the gate down. Then a howl -- loud, and close -- floated into the hall, higher and more chilling than the icy wind. The flesh on the back of my neck prickled. Another gust of wind whipped my hair back and I woke to the fact that we had no time for bewilderment. "Shut the door!" I shouted again. Serulf did, and suddenly the hall was quieter. No more howls came from outside, only short barks and snarls as the wolves quarrelled over the division of a sheep.
I pulled Sigrun to her feet and pushed her toward the stairway at the back of the hall. "Wrap Hereward up and carry him upstairs. Tell Merewyn to get the other children up there and bar the door with whatever you can."
Sigrun nodded and vanished. Merewyn clapped her hands. "To me, children! Bring your blankets. We're going upstairs to play a hiding game."
I stepped over the pile of half-awake, wailing children to Sigelm's side. "We can't lose all the sheep. We have to drive them off."
"All we have here in the hall is your uncle's old sword," he said, scrubbing his hands through tousled hair. "Anything else that might serve as a weapon is out there in the byre, with the wolves."
I looked at the hearth. "There's always fire," I said grimly. "You and Serulf, break up some of the benches for billets of wood. When we have enough torches ready we'll drive them out."
"Out where?" Wulfred demanded. I hadn't heard him come up behind me. "Your gate is snowed shut – I could barely squeeze through. How did they come over the walls?"
"I don't know," I snapped. "Are you coming to help, or are you staying here to defend the children?"
Wulfred hesitated, his gaze going to Ulrika as Sigrun carried her up the stairs. Then he shook his head. "The children will be safe enough here with the door barred. I'll come with you."
"Thank you," I said, and meant it. Another strong pair of arms would be welcome. "Can you help break up the wood?"
Five minutes later the handful of wolf-drivers gathered at the hall door. Outside I could hear more snaps and snarls, and the bleating screams of sheep being torn apart. Our cows and lone horse were still safe inside the byre, but frantic lowing and bugling showed they were aware of the intruders. A hollow drumbeat began to boom as the old cob kicked at the byre's wooden wall.
"Bar the door once we're gone, and don't open it until you hear one of us say it's safe," I told Helga. She nodded, the sweat of fear shining on her face in the light of the torches we held. I swept a glance around the little band -- myself, Serulf and Sigelm, Wulfred, and a couple of women brandishing pathetic weapons of chair legs or besom brooms set ablaze. I tightened my grip on my own makeshift torch. "Serulf, make for the gate and force it open somehow. Adelfrith, go with him and light his way, keep off any wolves that come at you. Everyone else, run to the byre. We'll take whatever we can use, then we'll surround the wolves by the sheep pens and drive them out of the gate." I pointed to Francha, who carried the new iron kettle, filled with red embers, by its handle. "If your torch goes out, light it from the coals."
Clumped tightly together, we pushed out the door. Cold air struck me in the face like a blow. Fire streamed behind us as we ran toward the byre. I spared a glance over my shoulder to make sure that Helga had shut the door again.
Inside the byre was dark and warm with manure-scented air. The animals bellowed louder as the flames unnerved them, rolling eyes reflecting the firelight. Sigelm grabbed scythes and hoes from pegs on the walls and passed them out to the others. I seized the axe from its place by the door.
We made a hasty plan: the four of us would split into pairs and come at the wolves from two sides, driving them away from the open centre of the farmyard, where the sheep pens were, and toward the gate. Each pair had one stronger member, Sigelm with Francha and Wulfred with me.
We separated outside, each pair going in a different direction around the corner of the building. I carried the axe and a torch in my left hand. Wulfred had my uncle's sword and a torch of his own. Struggling through the deep snow, I tried to keep pace with his longer legs. He stopped short at the edge of the yard and I nearly ran into him. "What are you doing?" I hissed, and shoved past.
Then I saw the beasts among the screaming sheep, shaking and tossing ewes like rag dolls, and I understood why Wulfred had halted. These were no wolves. The huge dark shapes stood tall as a pony at the shoulders, and their eyes glowed a sickly green even without light reflecting from them.
"Wargs!" The torch shook in my hands. "I thought they were all slain at the Deep."
"Some must have escaped on to the high slopes," Wulfred whispered. He began to edge backwards slowly. "No wonder you lost so many sheep this winter."
And that reminder that these foul creatures were wrecking our livelihood and Hereward's inheritance dissolved my common sense. I tightened my grip on the axe and torch, sucked in a deep breath of frozen air, and ran forward screaming.
Later, Sigelm told me that I had come flying out of the darkness shouting "Forth Eorlingas!" and other old warcries. I had no idea what words were making my throat hoarse; I only knew that I was not going to let Saruman's misbegotten curs destroy the farm I had worked so hard to rebuild.
My foolhardy charge goaded the others into action, and they ran forward from their own places around the yard, shouting and screeching. The flickering torches and the light flashing off the metal blades of the tools in our hands recalled the battle within the caves of the Deep.
"Elfled! Little fool!" Wulfred panted close behind me. "You'll never--"
But I did not stay to hear. I ran at the closest warg, screaming curses and jabbing my torch at its tail. It yelped and darted away between the byre and the dairy-house. I followed, panting and slipping on the snow. I was going to drive the filthy thing toward the gate and out of my home if it killed me.
Wulfred's footsteps slithered in the snow behind me. The cold air tore at my lungs with each breath. Our bobbing torches sent light and shadow leap-frogging over the outbuilding walls. I slowed as I realized the warg had turned for the gate. Good; one less thieving monster getting fat off our sheep.
A blot of shadow moved by the corner of the dairy-house. I floundered to a stop in the deep snow and stared. It was an orc; taller than me, with ropy arms that hung down nearly to its knees. Its small eyes reflected ruby-red in the torchlight. One hand held a black iron hook, a weapon like a giant billhook. From the other hand dangled a chicken with its head torn off, dripping blood on to the snow.
It seemed darker in the small lane between buildings. My torch was the only one shedding a circle of light now. "Wulfred?" My voice came out as a whimper. I turned my head a fraction -- just far enough to see that he was no longer behind me. The bastard had run away.
"Coward!" I screamed, uselessly. I hoped that dying curses were the strongest, because I wanted that dishonourable cur to suffer for the rest of his life.
The orc stepped closer, lifting its iron hook. My hand shook, sending torchlight wavering over the snow. The byre was at my back, the orc in front. There was nowhere for me to run, like my nightmares of the first raid on Fossdale. The thing laughed, showing teeth filed to sharp points, and jumped at me.
I screamed and threw my torch in its face. With both hands on the handle of the axe I swung desperately. The axe sheared half of the orc's left arm away, cleaved its leather breastplate, and stuck. Hot black blood streamed over my hands as I tugged at the axe, trying to drag it free, and the slick handle slid through my fingers. The orc screamed, a high-pitched piglike squeal, and lunged forward. I fell back with it on top of me.
I screamed again and squirmed in the grainy snow, hitting the thing as it snapped at my face. Sobbing, shouting, I beat my fists against its nose. Blood flowed from bites on my hands, and my arms were weakening. The weight was crushing. Suffocating. A black shadow flickered over my eyes once, and then again.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.