Inge woke, her heart fluttering.
Peaceful sounds drifted through the longhouse. A swaddled toddler cooed in his sleep, and someone grunted before rolling over to snuggle deeper into their pallet. The familiar scents of smoke, honey mead, and warm bodies filled the air. Everything appeared as it should.
Drawn by an unseen force, Inge wriggled out from beneath a layer of thick sleeping furs. Cold nipped at her as she picked her way across the hard-packed dirt floor. She paused when her favored kinsman, Hjálmarr, snorted and edged closer to the glowing embers of a dying fire. After he settled, she bent over and slipped her bare feet into his oversized boots. She knew the grizzledberserkir wouldn’t mind.
A silent echo called to her in the voice of the divine. Outside. Inge went. One such as she did not question the will of the gods.
Beyond the shelter of the longhouse, the wind whispered a promise of snow as it threaded icy fingers through her hair. Already the mountains were capped in white. By day, ornery brown bears foraged in the woods, preparing for their long winter sleep. In the dark, small creatures skittered through the underbrush, desperately squirreling away food stores. Both man and beast grew tense on the cusp of the changing season. Winter was cruel in Noregr.
A buzz of anticipation rattled Inge’s bones. She breathed deeply, letting the crisp air clear the dregs of sleep from her head. A gust tossed fallen leaves in a miniature cyclone at her feet, then sped off to chase puffy woolen clouds across the dark sky. As the clouds cleared, Máni, the moon god, appeared and cast a river of silver over the ground.
Inge’s skin pebbled with gooseflesh. Something wild and savage lurked in the tree line. She turned to see a hulking shape disentangle from the shadows, its fur darker than raven wings. Unblinking eyes fastened on her. They reflected copper in the moonlight.
Inge froze. The wind died, and the forest held its breath.
The wolf padded forward on silent paws. It tested the air. With deadly grace, it circled the young woman. Inge swallowed but held her ground. Úlfr were sacred. The beast drew closer. She could feel its hot breath against her skin. Dagger-sharp fangs glistened. Its hackles raised, and a low growl rumbled deep in its chest.
Hail Odin, one-eyed All Father, find me worthy.
The wolf bowed its head, a wary greeting between new allies, and a thrill ran through Inge.
Overhead, a cloud obscured the moon. When it reappeared, the wolf was gone, melted into the night as if it had been naught but a dream.
No, a sign.
Ulfheðinn, the All Father’s elite wolf warriors, were chosen, not made.
Inge threw her head back and howled.
Hjálmarr’s breath puffed white.
“You don’t have to do this, píka.” His face flushed pink in the cold, making the pale scar running across his cheek stand out in contrast.
“Don’t call me ‘girl.’ I’m a grown woman.” Inge snorted. “And I must do this. Odin chose me to join the Ulfheðinn Brotherhood. There is no denying the All Father.”
“Bróðir, not systir. There has never been a woman ulfheðinn.”
Inge frowned but didn’t answer. She picked her way up the rocky mountain trail. A loose stone turned underfoot, and she stutter-stepped in order to avoid twisting an ankle.
Hjálmarr would love an excuse to put a halt to this, the big oaf.
The thought held no bite. She knew the ulfheðinn worried for her. Many attempted the Trial, but few survived to wear the sacred wolf skin. Her stomach roiled. After her brother failed, there hadn’t been enough of him left for the funeral pyre. The vacant look on their mother’s face haunted Inge’s dreams.
I am not my bróðir. I was chosen. I will make our móðir proud.
As the pair climbed, the sun sank below the rocky summit, and shadows painted a violet gloaming. Inge pushed herself to keep up with the burly warrior’s longer strides. Her thighs burned, but she did not complain. The great goddess Hel would drag Inge to the underworld before she showed weakness.
Inge picked up the pace, jabbing Hjálmarr with an elbow as she passed him by.
“Say your piece, frændi. I know you well enough to tell when you are chewing on your thoughts. You look as if you’ve bitten into a pear only to find half a worm.”
The older man huffed.
“I didn’t teach you the ways of battle to watch you die in the Trial.” Hjálmarr hitched his snowy wolf skin cloak closer around his shoulders. The rare white pelt marked him first among equals in the brotherhood. “You fight with the wrath of a cornered badger, even without the berserkir’s bog myrtle. You could be the greatest Shield Maiden that ever lived. Konungr Harold Hárfagri would welcome your service.”
“And I will fight for the fair-haired king.” Inge bared her teeth. “As ulfheðinn. There was a sign.”
“A sign no one but you saw!” Hjálmarr’s voice rose to an angry shout.
“Do you doubt me?” Hurt crept in like hoarfrost on Wintersnight. Inge forced a levity in her tone she didn’t feel. “Have I ever spoken false, you old goat?”
“Old?” He spun, sweeping Inge’s legs out from under her.
Inge fell backward. She bit back an oath and grabbed the ulfheðinn’s tunic. Using his momentum against him, she pulled him down with her. They rolled, each scrabbling to come out on top. Inge twisted like a forest cat forcing Hjálmarr onto his back. She straddled his hips. He bucked once, then stilled.
Inge pressed the blade of her hunting knife to his throat.
“Call me a liar again, and I’ll shave off that scraggly mess you call a beard.”
“Perhaps, Odin willing, you just might survive the Trial.” He pushed her off and rose to his feet with warrior’s grace. “That was a clever trick.”
“The wolf is smaller than the bear and so uses speed and wiles to take down her opponent.”
You taught me that.
She didn’t say it aloud, but her mentor smiled as if she had.
A score of ulfheðinn gathered in the darkness on the stark plateau. They huddled together in twos and threes, grumbling and casting scornful glances at Inge. She glowered and set her shoulders, spine rigid as an old oak.
How dare they?
Hjálmarr cleared his throat.
“Brothers, I bring before you Inge, daughter of Sven Helvig, our honored Jarl.” He turned and faced Inge, eyes flashing. “Shield Maiden, will you heed the call of the gods and enter into the Wolf Trial?”
Inge nodded, unable to find her voice.
The mutters intensified.
…women are not berserkir, undeserving the mark of the wolf…
…she’ll ne’r survive the bear…
Anger flared at their words, and Inge clenched her fists. Who were they to deny the All Father’s mandate?
“Enough!” Hjálmarr’s voice ricocheted off the mountainside. “Odin has marked her as favored. She will be allowed to attempt the Trial.”
Silence fell. Norsemen respected omens. Inge smiled. They respected Hjálmarr even more. Many of the brotherhood owed their lives to the powerful berserkir.
Someone handed Inge a horn.
She took a deep draught and spluttered. Fermented bog myrtle curdled on her tongue. Hjálmarr gave her a hard look, and she downed the rest of the sour brew.
He nodded once, then pulled his fur cloak close. The white pelt shone, strangely bright in the starlit night.
“The wolf’s strength is fearlessness.”
Hjálmarr helped Inge out of her boots. She shed her tunic and trousers and left them in a pile like discarded snakeskin. The wolf wore no armor, nor would she.
I should feel cold.
Her bare skin tingled as the bog myrtle sent a wave of heat through her. She curled her lip and growled.
Her mentor pressed a simple bone knife into her hand.
Claw and fang.
The thought felt fuzzy, the words fading, shifting to more visceral images and feelings as the bog myrtle did its work.
Hjálmarr bowed, and more images, memories, flashed across her mind’s eye.
Two cubs wrestling in a spring meadow under their frændi’s watchful eye.
Her bróðir was no match for her speed.
The white wolf laughed and cheered them on.
Crooked teeth, as her bróðir grinned and waved, off to face the Trial.
An empty funeral pyre. She stood, feeling the heat on her face, and made a vow.
The white wolf nuzzled her neck, bringing her back to the present. He smelled of approval and pride. A thread of fear. Regret. Acceptance. Inge growled and pushed him off. She was ready.
One by one, the ulfheðinn stepped into the shadows. Grey and brown fur flowed over their shoulders. They pulled their hoods up––leathered snouts and ears, turning warriors into uncanny beast men.
Spears rattled against shields like drums. Heartbeats.
An ember flared in Inge’s stomach. She shifted the bone dagger from hand to hand as the spark grew into a gnawing hunger. The rage became a need to bite and claw. To rend flesh.
Time shifted, past and future dropping away. There was only now within the battle fury.
The berserkir frenzy swelled, and Inge lunged at the shadows. Beast men sidestepped. Their shield wall forced her back into the center of the circle. She snapped her teeth. Her pulse thrummed, blood boiling.
Musk filled Inge’s nose as the bear lumbered into the clearing. A rumble built, deep in her throat. The bear peeled its lips back, snarling in reply. It clawed the ground, gouging deep furrows in the dirt.
In the shadows, the ulfheðinn swayed. Flashes of fur and fang, spears and shields, two legs. Four. Inge shook her head and turned her back on the wolf men. The brotherhood wouldn’t interfere––the Trial was for her alone to win. Or to die.
The bear rose up on its hind legs and roared. It swiped, surprisingly swift. Three red lines tore across Inge’s chest. She leapt back.
The watchers bayed. First blood. Rage guided Inge’s knife, and the fight began in earnest.
Spin. Leap. Snap. Grapple. Slash.
Blood dripped down Inge’s face, but she felt no pain.
Spears drummed on shields like thunder. Tooth and claw and bunched muscles; deadly grace and brute strength. Wolf and bear. Blood dripped where fangs tore at soft flesh.
A whimper. A scream. Thought fled, and the battle fury took control.
Inge woke, an unknown eternity later, with a furred boulder crushing her chest and daggers buried in her shoulder. Groaning, she wriggled out from beneath the weight. Even with her bone knife buried deep in the bear’s sightless eye, the beast left a final score as its claws ripped from her flesh. She moaned. The air felt like splinters, and for a time, she did nothing but try to breathe.
The battle fury had faded, leaving Inge hollow. Her tongue tasted of blood and sour myrtle. The aftereffects of the drug left reality fractured.
Am I dauðr?
She flexed aching muscles. Not dead, then.
The night writhed. A wolf pack circled, drew closer.
Inge shook her head. Wolves became men in furred cloaks. She struggled to her feet and pulled the dagger from the bear’s still-warm corpse, then turned to stare at them defiantly. The cold night air puckered her bare skin.
Hjálmarr stepped forward and wrapped her in a hide, blacker than raven wings. The fur felt silky and warm. For a moment, Inge thought she saw copper eyes in the darkness. When she blinked, they were gone.
Thank you, systir úlfr.
A heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and she gritted her teeth but didn’t flinch.
“Welcome to the Ulfheðinn Brotherhood.”
Inge smirked. “Bróðir? I think we’re going to need a new name.”
All around her, the ulfheðinn threw back their heads and howled.