Teeth – Zaya Feli

Twist and pull. The pheasant’s wings flapped wildly against Isa’s thigh, though the bird was already dead. Isa hated the crack of breaking bones between his fingers. It sent a shiver down his spine. He loved the cooking and eating part, just not this. But he’d never tell anyone. They’d laugh. When the flapping stopped, Isa tied the piece of rope attached to his belt around the dead bird’s neck and hung it next to the other two. Deeper in the woods, another pheasant called. Maybe he’d get to break his record of eight birds in one catch, though part of him hoped he wouldn’t. The next trap was ahead, close to the ward. Isa brushed the tips of his fingers against the rough bark of the trees he passed. Their leaves had yellowed around the edges: not yet ready to fall. Deeper in, the beech and oak gave way to pine, the bottom halves of the oldest trees nearly stripped of needles. The trap lay nestled between two large rocks forming a natural passageway for small animals.

Despite the careful placement, it was empty. Isa knelt and inspected the wires. The woven metal was brown with rust in places; it would have to be replaced soon. He squinted ahead, eyes following an invisible path to an unmarked border. Standing, he stepped around the rocks and approached. Here, and no farther. Isa crouched and brushed the leaf litter aside. Dirt clung to the surface of the smooth rock, but the carved rune was still sharp and clear. Nauthiz. Two little crossed lines, innocent-looking but so powerful.

Isa swiped a thumb over the rune, its energy vibrating against his skin. He pulled his hand back. He shouldn’t disturb it, or Steinar would be angry. Isa looked along the invisible border. He didn’t know how many runes were in the ward, but it had to be many for it to wrap around all of Ulfheim. Maybe it was his imagination, but the forest seemed a bit darker on the other side of the ward. Only the gods knew what kinds of creatures prowled there. It was so tempting to see what lay beyond. Nothing stopped him from taking that single step forward. Not that he’d never been outside the ward, but he’d never gone alone, and never off the roads.

Come next winter, his thirteenth, he could. But it came with downsides. Ahead, the crack of a branch quieted the songbirds. Isa scanned the trees. Deer never strayed close enough to the village to get inside the ward, and Isa was glad. He didn’t want to watch the soft, gentle creatures fall to spears and arrows. Isa could still remember the glare of disapproval when Steinar urged him to join Torsten and the others for his first deer hunt – he’d run and hidden so he wouldn’t have to go. Steinar said he’d never make a respectable warrior, let alone a Runik, if he didn’t learn how to kill something bigger than a bird. Isa turned away. It wasn’t wise to linger.

Movement in the corner of his eye made him freeze. He turned slowly. A bird or a squirrel? Isa scanned the forest floor, pausing on something in the leaves, something large. His eyes widened. A creature? No, a person! The figure was so well camouflaged against the greys and browns that Isa hadn’t noticed him crouching near an old pine tree on the other side of the ward. The person raised his head and Isa darted for the nearest tree, pressing his back against it. He held a hand against his heart, the other going to the knife at his belt. Had he been spotted? The ward only kept out creatures of the other realms, not people. A disturbance would warn Steinar and the other Runiks, but how fast could they get here? Not fast enough to stop whoever it was from burying an axe in Isa’s skull. Halafjell was the only village within walking distance of Ulfheim.

They wouldn’t attack. Would they? Isa swore quietly. He knew he shouldn’t have gone so close to the ward! Why didn’t he ever listen? Isa closed his eyes but still couldn’t hear any movement. Slowly, he leaned around the tree. The figure was there, crouched among the fallen leaves. As Isa watched, the figure raised a hand, wiped its face, and whimpered like a puppy. Isa frowned. The person was too small to be a man. A boy? Curiosity pulled Isa out of his hiding place and he took a few steps closer. The crunch of leaves under Isa’s boots made the boy look up.

When their eyes met, the boy gasped and shuffled backwards like a fleeing crab until his back hit a tree. He scrambled to his feet and tried to run, but tumbled over with a cry. “It’s okay!” Isa called. He caught himself just short of the ward, holding out his hands to show that they were empty. The boy stood, leaning awkwardly to the side, arms hugging his chest. He looked around Isa’s age and absolutely miserable. Face dirty, clothes torn, hair a mess. No shoes. His eyes were the same bright green as the leaves. Isa couldn’t see any weapons.

“It’s okay,” Isa repeated. The boy limped a little closer, wincing every time he put weight on his left foot. Dark blood was smeared across the top of it and fresh droplets dotted the leaves where he’d stepped. Some creatures were drawn to the scent of human blood. What was he doing in the woods by himself? Unless he was a creature. “Are you lost?” Isa asked. The boy tilted his head, looking Isa up and down, but he didn’t answer. “Are you from Alfheim?” “What?” the boy asked. Isa narrowed his eyes. “Are you a changeling?” “What?” Isa sighed, digging under his shirt to draw out the medallion hanging around his neck.

“Catch,” he said, tossing it to the boy. He caught it with fumbling hands and looked at it, then trained his puzzled gaze back on Isa. “Changelings can’t touch iron. No trolls can,” Isa said. The boy’s lips parted as he turned the golden medallion over to reveal its iron backing. When he said nothing, Isa continued. “I’m gonna want it back.” The boy came forward, but Isa stopped him with a raised hand. “Wait. There’s a ward.

You’ll alert the whole village.” The boy’s expression didn’t change and Isa wondered if he’d understood a word Isa had said. He hesitated. The council meeting was still underway. If Hjalmar, Steinar, and the others had to break from the council and take up arms only to find the disturbance was nothing but a ragged human boy, they’d be furious. Isa had caused a ruckus a fortnight ago when he’d wandered too close to the ward and stumbled across it. If Steinar found out Isa had fiddled with it, he’d be in even bigger trouble, but he couldn’t leave a bleeding boy out there. Besides, Steinar had already taught him all about Nauthiz. He could open and close the ward without anybody noticing a thing. It would be fine.

Kneeling in front of the ward, Isa brushed the dry leaves aside. The runes were a few metres apart, but Isa could feel their vibrant energy without touching them. The stone he uncovered was a little worse for wear than the first he’d found. Maybe that would make it easier to manipulate. Isa pulled on the cords around his neck and sorted through the rune pendants dangling from them like keys on a chain. He picked one and held it tight, feeling the tips of his fingers mould to the grooves in its surface. The boy knelt in front of him, just on the other side of the ward. Isa held a finger to his lips. “Be very quiet. I need to concentrate.

” Not that the boy had been doing much else. Placing a hand over the warding rune, he closed his eyes. The beginning was hardest: focusing his mind on two things at once. Coaxing Pertho to let go of the power he’d need, then using that power to bid Nauthiz to lay down its shield. But Isa had done it before – not elegantly, but well enough that no one in the village had sensed it. When he felt the gap in the ward widen, he opened his eyes and let go. The rune around his neck, full of energy a moment ago, was almost empty. He stuffed it underneath his coat and grabbed the second one. “All right, come through,” Isa said, waving the boy forward. “Quickly!” The boy half-crawled across the ward, settling down beside Isa inside its boundary.

The rest of the ward was as still as an icy lake. Isa smiled. A small part of him hadn’t been sure he would succeed. It was a shame he couldn’t tell anybody what he’d managed to do. “Just a moment,” he said. The second energy rune wasn’t full, but it would do. He only had to close the gap. “There,” he said once the second rune was empty and the ward was again an unbroken shield. He’d hoped he might see a bit of wonder in the boy’s eyes, but he only looked sad. “What’s your name?” Isa didn’t really expect an answer, but when the boy held out a hand and dropped the medallion in Isa’s palm, he said, “My name is Rakkian.

” “Doesn’t sound northern.” “I’m not from here.” Isa could tell. The boy spoke like he wasn’t used to the language, his speech similar to the eastern traders’ but with a different rhythm. Isa pulled the chain over his head and hid the medallion under his shirt. “What are you doing out here on your own?” “I ran.” Rakkian dropped his head. His hair fell over his eyes in what might be charming goldenbrown curls after a thorough bath. Isa wondered how many of the spots on his face were freckles and which would wash off. “Are you a servant?” Isa asked.

Rakkian shrugged. Isa looked down. “How did you hurt your foot?” “I cut it on a rock.” Rakkian gripped his ankle and turned his foot so Isa could see the sole. The wound looked small, but Isa knew it could be deeper than it appeared. He reached out, then dropped his hand. Ingrid could heal a cut like that easily, but Isa still hadn’t mastered any of the healing runes. “Who are you?” Rakkian’s voice made Isa look back up. He was shivering in the autumn cold and his eyes darted to the pheasants dangling from Isa’s belt. “Please don’t send me back.

” Isa had no idea where ‘back’ was, but he still said, “I’m not gonna send you back, I promise.” He gave Rakkian an encouraging smile. “My name’s Isa. Don’t worry. I’ll fetch some bandages for your foot. And something to eat. Some clothes, too.” He bit his lip. Maybe he should just bring Rakkian back to Ulfheim and hand him over to Hjalmar. But what if he really was a servant? Hjalmar might give him to the people he’d run from, and Isa had just promised him he wouldn’t send him back.

“Wait here,” he said, getting to his feet. “Don’t touch the ward. I’ll return when the sun goes down.” “Do you promise?” Rakkian’s eyes were wide with fear, reminding Isa of the fawns that hid from hunters in the undergrowth. Isa smiled and ruffled Rakkian’s unkempt hair. “I promise.” * * * Isa left Ulfheim once the sun had sunk below the mountaintops, rimming their peaks with a faint orange glow. Sneaking out wasn’t easy. Not everyone was asleep. The other young ones in the council hall where Isa slept always stayed up too late to chatter.

It was his luck Jarl Hjalmar hadn’t decided to hold another one of his feasts, filling the village with curious drunks asking too many loud questions. The roads seemed empty, but Kjartan kept an eye on everything going on in the village, so Isa chose the long route around his hut. Passing the Sjaelir longhouse was safer; everyone joked the Sjaelir would sleep through Ragnarok. The sound of the waves on Ulfheim’s eastern side grew fainter. Close to the edge of the village, tethered dogs raised their heads and whined when Isa passed them. Patting the head of a brown mutt, he whispered, “Quiet, friend,” before making his way into the trees, adjusting the bag over his shoulder. The forest was dark, but Isa knew the stretch of woodland around Ulfheim well, and it didn’t take him long to find his way to where he’d left the boy. “Rakkian?” he called softly. Nearby, a bird disturbed from its sleep fluttered up from the branches. “Isa?” Isa turned.

Rakkian’s head poked up from behind a fallen log. Rakkian crawled over the log, careful not to touch a cluster of slimy mushrooms. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.” “Of course I would.” Isa swung the bag over his shoulder to display its contents. “I brought you clothes, a blanket, some bandages, and food.” Rakkian leaned forward to peer into the bag, folding a hand over his belly. Isa wondered how long it had been since Rakkian had eaten. He was stick-thin. Isa tilted his head back.

The old oak towered above them, its trunk parting in a horseshoe shape halfway up. It had been the first landmark Isa had gotten to know when Steinar had taken him into the forest for the first time, as soon as Isa had been old enough to walk without falling. “You’d better get off the ground tonight. The ward keeps out the nasty stuff, but wolves and bears can still get across.” He pointed to the tree. “That gap is a good place to sit.” “I tried to climb up,” Rakkian said. “It’s too high.” Isa dropped the bag at the foot of the tree and pressed both hands against the bark. “If you give me a leg up, I can climb to the fork and then pull you after me.

” He bent one leg and wiggled his foot in the air. A rasping cry made them jump. Rakkian disappeared around the trunk of the oak and Isa spun and hit his elbow in an attempt to draw his knife. With a racing heart, he stared into the darkness. There was hardly any daylight left, and the trees blocked the moon. Seconds passed. Nothing moved. “It’s just an animal,” Isa whispered. “Remember? Nothing else gets through.” A shriek followed the sound of rustling leaves.

Rakkian inched his way around the trunk and pressed himself against Isa’s side. His fingers were cold when he wrapped his hand around Isa’s wrist. “A bear?” “Bears don’t sound like that,” Isa assured him. “Maybe a bird.” And then, out of a stupid wanting to prove his bravery, he said, “Stay here.” “No! Don’t go,” Rakkian pleaded, but Isa pulled out of his grasp, puffed out his chest, and gave Rakkian a confident smile. “I got this,” he said, adjusting his grip on the knife and starting forward. Five metres into the darkness, Isa’s bravery faltered, but by then, it was too late to turn back. It was impossible not to make noise. Isa put his feet down gently, but in the dark, he couldn’t see the twigs and branches.

His heart skipped when a twig snapped under his boot and he looked over his shoulder seeking reassurance, but could barely see Rakkian’s face. The noises stopped. Everything looked different at night, but Isa knew the ward was close on his left. He’d have to be careful. He looked around, but saw nothing. “Probably just a critter,” he called over his shoulder. “I don’t think we need to wo—” Movement exploded at his feet, the screaming back louder than ever, and Isa staggered, heart in his throat. A branch caught his ankle and he fell. He scrambled to his feet, brandishing the knife. One of the thin columns of moonlight piercing the leaves highlighted the shimmering surface of black feathers.

Isa lowered the knife and allowed his racing heart to steady before inching closer. The bird was easier to see now that he knew what to look for. Its wings fluttered weakly against the leaves as it kicked its feet in an attempt to right itself. “It’s just a crow!” Isa called, relief flowing through him in a rush that made him laugh. “Rakkian, come look.” The dry leaves crunched as Rakkian came to crouch beside him. “Oh no, poor thing,” he murmured. “What do you think happened?” The crow’s eyes were wide and its beak open. Isa reached out, trying to wiggle his hand underneath its body. It didn’t even have the energy to peck his hand.

“I don’t know. Maybe a wolf got it while it was sleeping.” Gently, he turned the bird right side up and cradled it against his chest. It was cold and he could feel its gasping breaths. Its dark wings hung beside its body like it didn’t have the strength to fold them. Isa stroked the crow’s soft head where it rested against his arm and the bird closed its eyes. “There’s a bottle of water in my bag,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder. “Can you get it?” Rakkian nodded, a look of determination on his face as he half-ran, half-limped back towards the tree. Isa ran his fingers along the crow’s chest, feeling under its wings. He couldn’t find any blood or broken bones.

Maybe it was sick? Rakkian returned, crouching beside Isa with a sound of exertion. He unstoppered the bottle and poured a bit of water into his palm, then held it out for the crow. The crow didn’t move. Isa frowned and tried to guide its head to the water, but instead, it simply lay with its beak against Rakkian’s hand, unmoving. Isa bit his lip. It looked close to death. “Sorry, birdie. Rakkian, maybe you shouldn’t watch this,” he said, heart racing at the prospect of snapping the crow’s neck. Somehow, it felt different from the pheasants. “Wait!” Rakkian wiped his wet hand on his trousers and placed his palm on the crow’s back.

“I think I can help.” Isa’s belly twisted. “I don’t think anything can—” A familiar vibrating energy tickled Isa’s palms as it flowed across the crow’s feathers. He stared, transfixed, as the crow stopped gasping and perked its head up. It flapped its wings a few times, and then folded them, struggling in his grip. Isa stared at Rakkian. “Are you a Runik?” He’d never seen a child heal like that. Bjarka, the healing rune, was difficult to master. Steinar wouldn’t even let Isa try until he was a few years older, afraid he would hurt himself. Rakkian looked younger than him, yet he’d healed the crow as easy as breathing.

Rakkian frowned and shook his head. “I don’t think so.” “You’ve never used a rune?” Rakkian shook his head again. “The men who brought me across the sea called me something else.” Isa narrowed his eyes. The crow looked between them and wiggled its body again, but Isa took no notice. What if… “Sjaelir?” Rakkian nodded. “That’s the word.” “No, that can’t be,” Isa said. “Sjaelir can’t do what you just did.

” But it would make sense, he thought, for Norsemen to bring Sjaelir across the sea. Isa didn’t know why, but there were no Runiks in the west, only Sjaelir. Curiosity blossomed in him, but his questions would have to wait. “Let’s get off the ground.” Isa led the way back to the forked oak, the crow safely hidden under his coat, sliding an arm through the hoop of his bag. Rakkian clasped his hands and Isa placed his foot in the makeshift step. When he kicked off, Rakkian groaned. Isa gripped the lowest branch, wrapping his arms around it before Rakkian could drop him. He dangled awkwardly before finding purchase with his feet. He crabbed his way onto the branch – not the most elegant manoeuvre of his life, but he managed to get upright without squishing the bird.

It squawked when he leaned over the side and grabbed Rakkian’s hand, pulling him up with a grunt of effort. Rakkian sat down in front of him, leaning his back against the curve. “Phew. Here.” Isa swung the bag over his shoulder and took out a fire stick, striking the flint against it. A few sparks clung to the stick and grew into a small flame. Rakkian took the stick and Isa gently drew the bird from his coat. In the light, he realised it wasn’t a crow at all. “It’s a raven,” Isa said, stretching its wings and feeling its legs for other injuries. “I thought it was a crow ’cause it’s so small, but it’s only a baby! Look at that beak.

He’s definitely a raven.” “It’s a girl,” Rakkian said. Isa looked up. “What? How do you know?”

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