The blizzard howled down from the mountains like the curse of dead gods. Winds moaned like the dead and clawed at the trees and the rocks. Vraid followed the frozen creek through the forest, unable to see anything more than an arm’s reach ahead of him. The sky was black at noon, and the winds bellowed and tried to drag him down. Time and again his boot went through the ice at the edge of the creek, and by that he knew where he was. Ice formed on his face and in his beard, tried to freeze his eyes shut.
He pushed onward because he was an enormous man, and his sheer power forced a path through the piling drifts and the ice-rimed undergrowth. The wind could not stop him, though it tried. In his left hand he used his unstrung bow as a staff, feeling his way through the storm.
When he first saw the light, he thought his eyes were failing him, and he scrubbed at them with one cold fist wrapped in freezing rawhide. He ground the ice from his eyes and blinked into the wind and he saw a light again, so he knew it was not an illusion. He changed his course, knowing he risked becoming lost in the trees, and struggled toward that momentary glint of yellow.
The wind reached a screaming crescendo, and it shoved and clawed at him, forced him down in a drift as tall as his shoulder, pushed him back when he fought out of it. When he stood again he could not see anything, and he had lost his orientation. He did not know which way he was going, and so he simply guessed and battered his way through the snow and the wind. Even if he chose wrong, there was a chance he might strike the creek again and find his way back.
Instead he collided with a wall, well-dressed logs fitted tightly. He felt his way along it, wading through the snow, until he found a window. The storm had blown back the shutter, and through the oiled rawhide he saw the yellow gleam of a fire. He shoved the shutter back in place and forced the hook down to hold it, then he stumbled along the wall, feeling his way until he found the door.
It was piled with snow, but he could see it had been opened since the storm began. He shoved against it, then found the leather strap it had for a handle and pulled it open. Blind, he stumbled inside and felt a warmth on his face that seemed to burn. He pulled the door shut behind him, and the wind and slashing snow was mercifully gone. He heard gasps and voices, and he turned, blinking in the light of a lantern.
He saw a boy there, no more than sixteen, and he was pointing a pitchfork at Vraid’s face, hands shaking. Behind him stood a woman with a slip of a girl huddled against her side. The woman was young but hard-lived, with a knife in her hand. On a bed beside the fire was an old man, propped up against the wall. He looked shrunken and pale, but his eyes were watchful.
“Who are you?” the boy said, his voice unsteady. “What have you done with my father?”
Vraid rubbed melting ice from his face, feeling the days-old growth of hair on his cheeks. He let the bow-stave fall aside and held out his open hands. “I was lost in the storm and I found your house by luck. I mean you no ill. I saw no one outside.” He looked at the heavy door. “Can’t see much in that anyway.” He looked at the boy, past him to the older woman. The younger girl, maybe fourteen, watched him with huge eyes. “Your man went out?”
“Yes,” the woman said, her voice rough.
“The goats were screaming in the barn,” the boy said, stepping in to better block Vraid’s way with the fork. It was a rude tool, but it was sharp. Vraid did not want to start a fight. “My father went to see what was wrong.”
Vraid looked at the woman again. “How long?”
She shook her head. “Not long. But too long. The noise stopped, but -”
“He should be back by now,” the boy said, cutting her off. “Did you do something? Who are you?”
“I am called Vraid,” he said, drawing up to his full height, and the boy fell back a step. “I am a hunter and borderer. I crossed the mountains from the north.” Slowly, he opened his coat and let them see his mail shirt and the sword strapped to his side. “I did not come for a fight, only for shelter. But no man should be out in this storm.” He drew the coat back around him and tied it across his chest. “Promise me shelter until the storm passes, and I will seek your man.”
He ignored the surly, angry boy, looked at his mother and waited. She hesitated, fearing some ruse, but then she nodded. “Very well.”
“Good.” He picked up his bow-stave again. “Which way, and how far?”
“I’ll show you,” the boy said. He backed away, not lowering the fork until he had to. He grabbed his own coat and pulled it on.
Vraid shook his head. “No, lad. You stay here with your mother.”
“I’m coming!” he snarled, pulling up his hood. “I don’t trust you.”
Vraid saw the boy would not be dissuaded without a fight, saw how his mother just lowered her eyes. Mule-headed, this boy. Probably like his father. “Well enough. You stay behind me, and point the way.” He wanted to show the woman he meant no harm, but these people were scared of something, and he knew it was not him. “Come quick.”
As soon as they opened the door they were buffeted by the blast of the wind. The snow had thinned to tiny shards of ice that the wind drove against their skin like needles, and both of them ducked and hunkered against it. Vraid went first, shoving the door open wide enough to squeeze through, feet sinking into the snow that had fallen just since he went inside. The boy came after him, shut the door, and Vraid had to make himself turn away from the warmth and the shelter in the cabin.
Instead he used his bow-staff to push at the snow and feel for his footing, to keep himself pointed in one direction. The boy used his fork the same way, caught his arm and gestured him to their left – around the side of the low cabin.
Vraid struggled through the snow, wading thigh-deep in places; the snow was drifted against the sides of the cabin almost to the eaves of the roof. The roof itself was already layered in snow as deep as his arm was long, and he hoped it could stand the weight. The wind scoured at his face as he squinted into the darkness. It was the middle of the day, and that was the only reason he could see at all. He knew how easy it was to become disoriented in a storm like this. Men tried to get back to their homes, or to their barns to check their livestock, and ended up going in circles until they fell and froze.
The tree branches were heavy with ice, whipped by the gale, and he ducked under their reaching fingers as he followed along the side of the cabin, and then the boy pointed across the open yard and Vraid knew the barn must be there, out of sight. Crossing in the open would be dangerous, and he knew they should rope themselves together, but he knew the boy did not trust him. So he dug his bow into the ground and struck off, teeth gritted and lips tight.
It was not far, and in daylight, under a clear sky, the barn would be so close one could stand at the back of the cabin and throw stones at it, but in this storm it was a brutal passage. Vraid and the boy struggled through waist-deep drifts and bent themselves against the relentless wind. Vraid used his greater size to break a path through the snow until he fell against the cold wooden side of the barn. The building gave a little shelter from the wind, and the door was open and frozen in place, the opening a great dark maw.
“Dad?” the boy called out, stepping inside. “Dad!”
There was no sound or light inside, and then Vraid smelled the copper sting of blood. He did not think, he reached out and caught the boy’s coat and yanked him back from the doorway. Even as he did there was a snarl like ripping wood and Vraid saw yellow eyes blaze in the dark. They boy yelled in shock, and then jaws closed on his leg and he screamed.
Vraid heard bones crush and then he struck at the half-seen face of the beast with his bow-staff, and again. It was like striking wood, and he cast it aside and grabbed up the pitchfork even as he dragged the boy out of the dark. He was still shrieking, and the head of the monster emerged into the light, pulling and shaking at his leg.
It was a wolf, or had the shape of a wolf – it was far, far too large to be any simple beast. Vraid stabbed at it with the fork and it flashed away into the dark, leaving him unsure if he had struck it or not. He could not wait and find out.
Released, the boy howled and tried to crawl away, but Vraid hooked an arm around him and lifted him as if he weighed nothing. He clawed his free hand under his own coat and drew his sword, the hilt cold as winter under his hand. Now he was headed into the wind, and he could see almost nothing. He walked almost backward, watching behind him as he waded through the path they had made. It was already fading, and he knew if he became lost the boy was surely dead.
He saw eyes watching him in the dark, heard the low growl of a heavy animal close to them. He reached the cabin and almost fell against the wall, bringing a cry of pain from the boy. He staggered up, sword held out to the unseen, and the beast laughed, a low, very human sound. Vraid felt the hairs on his neck rise up, and he knew what manner of thing hunted him.
It was coming, growling and hissing on their trail, and he fought back around the corner of the house and charged the door. It seemed he heard it close behind him, but did not stop to look. He wrenched the door open and flung the boy through, bringing screams from inside. He looked and saw the shadow under the trees, saw those glittering eyes and heard the voice as if it muttered something unheard. Then he was through the door and inside, dragging the door shut behind him. There was a door bar, and he slammed it down and reeled back, staring, waiting.
The woman was at her son’s side, tearing strips from her dress to bind his ruined leg. The boy was only half-awake, sobbing and shuddering. He twitched and Vraid stepped over, held him down so she could work.
“What happened?” she said, her eyes wide and shocked. “What did this?”
It was the old man by the fire who laughed then, a thin sound like crackling parchment, and he thumped his head back against the wall as he cackled. “Weirwolf,” he said. “Weirwolf out there. Come to eat us alive, and steal our souls.”
Something thudded against the door, and Vraid turned and braced his foot against it, sword poised to strike. It could have been the wind. It clawed and howled outside like a sky full of wolves. “Yes,” he said quietly, watchful. “A weirwolf.”
“They live up, in the high places of the mountains, in the cold,” he said. The woman was busy tying off the wounded leg of her son. The boy was still and pale, and Vraid wondered if he lived. “But sometimes, when the winters are long, they come down. They hide in the night, in the snow.” He kept the door braced with his body, listening. “I have hunted them before.”
“They are demons,” the old man said in his rasping voice like a sawing file. “They are men who take the shape of wolves.”
“No,” Vraid said. “They are beasts, but they can think like a man, or almost. And they speak.” He looked at the windows, remembering the shutters that closed the oiled rawhide off from the outside, how feeble that seemed now. “Is there a back door to this cabin?”
“Yes,” the woman said. “But it is buried under snow. We could not open it.”
“Is it barred?” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “But not strongly.”
Vraid nodded, hoping that would be enough. It would not be like a weirwolf to burst in unless it were starving. They did not like to fight awake, aware men; they preferred to draw them out, strike from the darkness.
The boy seemed to wake, sat halfway up and gasped, then he cried out and clutched his leg. “Papa! I heard it! It laughed at me!” He blinked and his mother pressed him back down, held his head in her lap.
“Hush, Thomen,” she said, holding his head. “Lay still.”
“It hurts. It hurts. Did father come back? Is he here?” His face was white, and the flesh under his eyes was dark like bruises. “How long have I slept?”
“He is senseless from the wound,” Vraid said. He saw fresh blood pooling on the floor. “Get the bleeding stopped or you’ll bury him by dawn.”
The woman slipped down, soothing her boy, until she could reach his leg. Vraid watched while she tightened the wrappings, nodded to himself. She knew how to dress a wound. “What’s your name?” he said.
“Weala,” she said. She glanced at her daughter, still standing wide-eyed by the fire. “That is Varuna.” She made sure the boy’s leg was bound tight. “Is my husband dead?”
“Yes,” Vraid said, not hesitating.
“Weala?” the voice came from behind the door, so close to Vraid it made his flesh creep. He did not know the voice, but the woman did. He saw her eyes widen, saw the girl behind her cover her mouth. Thomen started from his delirium.
“Father?” he said, twisting his neck. “Father?”
The woman started up, coming for the door, and Vraid put up his sword like a bar to hold her back. He met her gaze and shook his head.
“Weala?” the voice said again, so close Vraid imagined he could feel the breath just on the far side of the door. It was there, so close he could have touched it. “Thomen? Let me in.” The voice shivered with seeming cold. “I’m so weak, and I’m hurt. Let me in.”
Weala came closer, tears in her eyes, clutching at the throat of her dress. Vraid stepped in front of the door and blocked her way. “No,” he said in a low voice. “It’s not him.”
She almost spoke; he saw her mouth working and then she covered it with one bloody hand, as if she did not trust herself to remain silent. She held very still for a moment, then turned away. He saw the young girl behind her, white-faced. She was no more than twelve, but she did not cry.
“Weala?” the voice came again, more desperate. “Please. Please, it’s so cold. Please.” The voice quavered, and seemed to sink down lower, as though the possessor were sinking down to the ground outside. “Please!”
She broke, lunged for the door and Vraid caught her, shoved her back. She almost fell and he caught her, pulled her away from the door. “He’s gone,” he snarled. “Think! He’s been in the cold for too long! It’s not him.”
“It’s him!” Thomen said, dragging himself to the door. “It’s him!” He wrenched the bar aside and Vraid tried to lunge over and stop him, but the boy hurled his body against the door, his wounded leg failing him. “Father!” He screamed it into the howling dark.
In answer a massive skull came roaring in from the blizzard, and screams split the air in the cabin as wind blew the fire low and cold clawed at them, and the beast closed its jaws on the boy’s head. There was a crushing sound, and blood sprayed, and then Thomen’s body was ripped away into the darkness.
Vraid bellowed and hurled the woman behind him. He leaped for the door and plunged through in a fury. He saw nothing, slashed at the scouring snow and wind, but he heard only laughter and the crushing of bones. He leaped back through the door and slammed it shut. He could not see the bar and instead rammed his sword into place to hold it. Outside, a howl rose up, and then it became a scream like the war-cry of a man, and it trailed off into mocking laughter.
The old man laughed in his bed, banging his head back against the wooden wall with a hollow sound. He held up his shrunken, leathery hands and made shapes on the wall with shadows in the firelight. “Eat him up,” he said. “Eat his head and his hands and his guts. Eat us all up.”
The woman hunched on the floor, covering her mouth and staring at the blood splattered on the walls and the floor, dripping down the edge of the door itself. Vraid heard a deadly growl from outside and hunted until he found the door bar, took back his sword and shoved the bar in its place. Little enough good any of it would do them. A weirwolf that size could rip the door off, if it wanted to.
“Let us in,” the dead husband’s voice said from outside. “Let us in now! It’s so cold!”
Weala got to her feet and stared, her eyes pale and shocked. She took her daughter in her arms and clutched her close, backed away from the door until she was beside the fireplace, pressed against the stone. A weight pressed against the door, and Vraid saw the heavy timbers bending under it, heard the slow, mortal creak as they flexed. It was on the other side, leaning in, moaning in the voice of a dead man. “Help us! Help us!”
“Help us,” the voice of Thoman came from the window close by the old man. The shutters rattled. “Let us in! Quick! It’s here! It’s coming!”
Vraid felt cold run down his back like ice. The door was bulging inward, the boards groaning, and the voice was at the window. It was not one weirwolf - it was two. Weala shrank away from the window, shutting her eyes, and the old man laughed, banged his fists on the wall and shouted wordless noises.
A beam in the door cracked with a sound like splitting ice and Vraid was jolted into action. He gripped the blade of his sword in a half-grip and rammed the keen point through a joint in the heavy door. The steel punched through and then the voice of the dead father became a howl of rage.
The window beside the fireplace burst inward in a shatter of broken wood and torn hide, and then a head out of blackest nightmare pushed through, snapping jaws heavy with teeth. They caught on the sleeve of the girl Varuna’s dress, and she screamed like a whistling kettle as she was half dragged from her mother’s arms. Weala howled and dragged her daughter back, yanking so powerfully that the fabric tore and they both pitched to the floor beside the hearth.
Vraid ripped his blade free and saw the last handspan was dark with blood. The beast in the window shoved against the frame, ripping the wood apart, and Varuna screamed again. Wild-eyed, Weala plunged her hands into the embers of the fire and came forth with a double handful of blazing coals. The sizzle and stench of burning meat filled the room, and then she shoveled the coals into the yawning mouth of the weirwolf with her hands.
It roared and shook, spraying red coals across the room, and then with a single sideways snap it ripped Weala’s burned hands off and sent her to the floor, bleeding and screaming. The beast vanished from the window, howling into the night, and then Vraid was hurled to the floor as the door behind him disintegrated under the assault of the other weirwolf, a mass of black-furred wrath borne on a blast of freezing wind.
Vraid looked up and saw the jaws coming for him, feral eyes burning like stars, and he twisted and rammed his sword up into the red maw. Blood splattered him, and he tasted it. The beast flinched back and he caught the loose skin of its neck, shoved the head back and up, exposing the throat. It put a paw on him and crushed the air from his chest. It spat blood and laughed.
He struck, plunging his sword into the black-furred chest, and the thing convulsed. He ripped his sword free and blood coursed out. He shoved the thing off him and stabbed it again, and again, until it sagged to the floor, blood pouring from its mouth. It looked at him with one yellow eye, full of hunger and hate.
The room was burning. The scattered coals had kindled flames in a dozen places, and the whole cabin was going to burn. Weala lay on the floor in a lake of smoking blood, and the old man beat his fists on the walls and cackled. Only Varuna lay curled beside the hearth, covering her eyes and screaming. Vraid was on his feet, took two steps and swept her up. She weighed almost nothing. The house was burning, and they had nowhere to go but into the storm with a vengeful monster.
He burst through the broken pieces of the front door, past the bleeding hulk of the dead monster, and they were immediately engulfed in the howling winds of the blizzard. The snow was thicker, and he could see almost nothing. Varuna clung to him and cried out as the cold took her breath away, and he felt heat baking from inside the cabin, soaking through the heavy walls. Already smoke was pouring out of the ruined window, and it gave light to see by.
Vraid forced his way through the snow, using his bulk to push through the drifts. He cut around the side of the cabin and then struck out for the barn. It was the only choice. They had to have some shelter or they would not survive, not in this.
In moments the whole world was swallowed by blinding snow and endless wind. He staggered through the drifts as high as his knees, and then he all but fell against the wall of the barn. He felt along the front for the doors, and then he heard it coming for him. He heard the footfalls crushing the snow, the heavy breath; he smelled the slaughter stink of it.
At the last moment he threw Varuna down in the doorway of the barn and turned to meet the slavering death that came down from the storm to devour him. The heavy body struck him before he could bring his sword to bear, and it was dashed from his hand as he went down into the snow, pinned under the monstrous bulk. Jaws seared by hot coals snapped at him, and he clawed at the scarred face, caught the long jaws and tried to hold them back. It shook its head, shrugged him off, and those jaws lunged down and snapped closed on his upper arm. He screamed as the teeth split the mail links and ground into his flesh. He rained blows on the massive head and made no impression.
It drew back, jaws bloody, and it laughed at him. He saw into that cold yellow eye, and he saw will and intelligence; he saw hatred and blood-hunger and glee as it reared back to bite him again. He raised his arm to try and block it as he clawed at his belt for his knife. Snow blinded him.
Varuna charged in from the side, his sword gripped in her small hands, and she drove half the length of the blade into the thing’s shoulder. It howled and wrenched away, tearing the hilt from her hands in a spray of blood. Vraid pushed it off him and down into the snow, and he grasped the hilt that jutted from it and drove it in deeper. It bellowed again and struck at him, thrashing, but it was off-balance, blood gushing as he shoved the sword in until it emerged from the other side in a burst of red.
It snapped at him again, slow and weak, and he cuffed the jaws aside, ripped his sword loose, and hacked down at the thing. With three hard blows he chopped off the monstrous head and left the body in the snow, blood pouring out in a flood to splash against the wall of the barn, melting its way down through the snowdrift.
Vraid staggered back, his sword already heavy with freezing black blood. He pulled the girl shivering from the snowbank and dragged her inside the barn, forced the door closed against the wind. His arm was a mass of pain, and he was winded and gasping, the cold air like knives in his chest. He staggered back into the dark space and fell into the heaped hay. He burrowed down into the hay and pulled the girl’s small body against him. He pulled his coat tight around the both of them and they huddled there, breathing each other’s breath, waiting for the storm to howl its last.