Æthelwulf stood shivering by the ancient stone, waiting for the moon to rise high enough above the trees to shine into the clearing. He was dressed in his warmest furs, belly empty from the day’s fasting. He was a Christian king, but to rule his people, all of his people, he had to respect their ways. And that meant he must brave the Wolf Trial, the Purge of Februa.
On this night, the second full moon after the longest night, the king must run the woods without guards, at the mercy of the People. The humans kept to their beds. The People would hunt. If their king was worthy, he would join them in the hunt. If not, he would be hunted.
Tyrants did not rule Wessex—not for long.
For nineteen years, since he first took the throne, Æthelwulf had run these woods. Most years it was a fierce joy, the pack-sense surging around him as they took down stag, cornered wild boar, and proved themselves the most dangerous predators in these lands.
Some years there had been trouble—famine, unpopular judgements, his long pilgrimage to Rome. Then there were challengers. He had faced them sword in hand, Randolph protecting his flank.
But Randolph had been distant this winter. They had quarrelled that autumn, first over the slaughter of the heathens captured at Aclea, and then over Æthelwulf’s decision to split the lands between his two sons. Æthelwulf, grown accustomed during his pilgrimage to the greater deference the Franks and Romans showed their own lords, had forbidden Randolph to disagree with him in front of the court. Since then Randolph had withheld his counsel, watching from his place of honor by the fire, as silent on two legs as he was on four. Æthelwulf suspected that his wounds pained him in the cold, and hoped that Randolph’s mood would warm with the weather.
They had not spoken of it, but Æthelwulf would rather face the Wolf Trial alone than risk his wounded shield-brother’s life in a pack challenge.
A distant howl rose on the night. It was joined by another, and another, as Æthelwulf drew his sword and prepared himself for battle.
Æthelwulf had already defeated two challengers. The first, a pup barely past his first hunt, had whined and shown his throat after a solid kick to the muzzle. The second, a dark female in her prime, had given him a real challenge and fought to the death. He regretted her loss, or would, once his blood cooled from its battle-pitch. He wondered which of his handful of women warriors would be missing from the table come morning.
“Come on, you curs,” Æthelwulf roared over her corpse at the circle of wolves watching from the shadows of the trees. He breathed deep and steady, knowing there was no hiding the scent of blood where his arm had kept her snapping jaws from his throat long enough for that final sword thrust to her belly.
Another wolf entered the clearing. This one Æthelwulf recognized. Larger than the rest, with a greying muzzle and a gait stiff from the axe strike that would have taken his king’s life at Aclea, Randolph was unmistakable.
“Well-met, brother!” Æthelwulf called out, waiting for Randolph to take his place at his side as they met the next challengers.
Randolph limped over to the female’s corpse and sniffed it. His hackles went up as his head went down. Æthelwulf heard the low, rippling snarl that had always meant their enemies’ blood.
Æthelwulf froze. Randolph was aging and not fully healed from his wounds. Yet he was still the greatest warrior Æthelwulf had ever met. At that moment, the darkness that had clouded his soul over this long, weary year of compromises and betrayals, sins unworthy of him as a man and a king—finally lifted. From their sparring, Æthelwulf knew the two of them were well-matched. One way or another, God’s will would be done this night.
“Well-met indeed,” he welcomed his shield-brother, taking his fighting stance as Randolph lunged.