Njall could not stop looking at the wolf.
She lay on the flags before the fire in his father's hall at Nithogsfjoll and panted, despite the chill. Njall was sixteen, almost a man, even if he was hoping for just one more spurt of growth, but her head was as broad as the span of his palm between her eyes. His arms couldn't have circled her barrel, and if she rose on her long racer's legs, she would--almost--be able to look him in the eye, were her attention not reserved entirely for her master.
She was big even for a trellwolf, and more, she looked tired. Her winter coat was shedding in hanks and clumps, like handfuls of dirty rags gray with scrub-water, and he could see her ribs under the skin like sprung staves. Her midsection bulged with the promise of pups, and her heavy black nipples leaked watery fluid on the stones where she lay, infinitely patient, waiting for her master to finish his business with Njall's father.
Njall didn't know what the business was, exactly, but he did know his father wasn't pleased to be doing it. Njall had been exiled--not to the boys' dormitory but to his mother'sempty solar--and fed his noon meal in isolation and bid stay like a puppy. Which he was not, and it rankled. Perhaps it was the insult that sent him, once the ale and bread and cheese and wizened last-winter apple were gone, edging down the long ragged curve of the stair to peer around the corner into the hall, stone rough under his palms, and learn what business his father had that his heir was excluded from.
And perhaps it was curiosity, too, for the men of the wolfheall almost never came to the keep. They were not welcome here, and they knew it.
The wolf had noticed him, for her ears flicked toward him now and again, but she never moved her firelight-hazel eyes from her master's face.
Njall had seen her master before--had even seen her at his side--among the cottages that clustered around the roots of his father's keep like goslings huddled at their mother's feet. The wolfcarl was a big man, almost as tall and stocky as a troll himself, wild-bearded, his graying red hair braided back from his temples; the edge of the axe he carried was bright with nicks and sharpening. He was Hrolleif, the Old Wolf, high-ranked in the werthreat, and Njall knew the villagers--and the manor--owed him obedience and fear.
Obedience, for he and the trellwolves and the werthreat were all that stood between the village and the trolls and wyverns of the North. And fear, for he was of the Wolfmaegth, the Wolf-brethren, and not quite human anymore. The more so because he had bonded a bitch, a Queen-wolf, with all that that implied.
Njall had heard stories about the werthreat and the trellwolves all his life; when he was a little boy, his nurse had threatened him that if he wasn't good, his father would tithe him to the wolfheall. Everyone knew the men of the wolfheall were half-wolf themselves, dark and violent in their passions, that they drank the blood of their fallen enemies and nursed from the teats of their she-wolves. Nodecent man, said Njall's father, wanted anything to do with them.
Njall didn't want anything to do with Hrolleif. He just wanted to look at the wolf.
His father's voice rang across the hall: "And I'm telling you there are...