Every winter, hunger drives the wolves out of the mountains of Arn, and they sweep across the forests outlying the northern cities. They hunt in packs as large as armies and wash over the towns in their path like a great wave might crash down on hills of sand. Villagers may board up their windows and build up their fires, but the wolves are clever. Some say that they can rise up on two legs and speak as men, that nimble fingers can chip away at hinges, that their voices can call promises and pleas through keyholes, that they are not quite what they seem.
When whole towns are found empty in the spring, doors ajar, bed linens smeared with dirt and fur, cups and plates still on the tables, white bones piled in the hearth, people say these things and many other things besides.
But in the city of Dunbardain, behind the high walls and iron gates, ladies wear bejeweled wolf toes to show boldness and advertise fecundity. Men have statues of wolves commissioned to grace their parlors. And everyone cheers for wolves at the dog fights. City people like to feel far from the little towns and their empty, dirt-smeared beds.
Each year, wolves are caught in traps or, very occasionally, a litter is discovered and they are brought to the city to die spectacularly. Arn wolves are striking, black and slim as demons, with the unsettling habit of watching the audience as they tear out the throats of their opponents. City dwellers are made to feel both uneasy and inviolable by the dog fights; the caged wolf might be terrible, but it is caged. And the dog fights are majestic tented affairs, with the best bred dogs from all parts of the world as challengers. Expensive and exotic foods perfume the air, lulling one into the sense that danger is just another alluring spice.
Not to be outdone by his subjects, the king of Dunbardain obtained his own wolf pup and has trained it to be his constant companion. He calls it Elienad. It is quite a coup to have one, not unlike making the son of a great foreign lord one’s slave. The wolf has very nice manners, too. He rests beneath the king’s table, eats scraps of food daintily from the king’s hand, and lets the ladies of the court ruffle his thick, black fur.
The velvet drapes of the tablecloth hang like bed curtains around the wolf who lolls there among the satin and bejeweled slippers of courtiers and foreign envoys.
Under the table of the king is a place of secrets. Letters are passed, touches are given or sometimes taken, silverware is stolen, and threats are made there, while above the table everyone toasts and grins. But the king has a secret, too.
The wolf watches, and his liquid eyes take it all in. This dark place is nothing to the magnificent glittering ballrooms or even the banquet hall itself with its intricate murals and gilt candelabras, but here is his domain. He knows the lore of under the table and could recite it back to anyone that asked, although only one person ever does.
A woman sitting beside Lord Borodin reaches her hand down. A fat ruby glistens as she holds out a tiny wing of quail. Grease slicks her fingers.
Once, Elienad took a bitter-tasting rasher of bacon from Lord Nikitin and was sick for a week. He knows he should learn from that encounter, but the smell of the food makes his mouth water, and he takes the wing as gently as he can. The tiny bones crunch easily between his teeth, filling his mouth with the taste of salt and marrow. It wakes his appetite, makes his stomach hurt with the desire to tear, to rend. The woman allows him to lick her hand clean.
There is a boy who lives in the castle of Dunbardain, although no servant is quite sure in which room he sleeps. He dresses too shabbily to be a nobleman’s son; he does not wear the livery of a page nor has he the rags of a groom. His tutors are scholars who have been disgraced or discredited: drunks and lunatics who fall asleep during his lessons. His hair is too long and his breeches are too tight. No one has any idea who his mother is or why he is allowed to run wild in a palace.
When they start dying, it is the master of the dog fights who is first accused. After all, if he allowed one of the wolves to get free, he should have let the guard know. But he claims that all his wolves are chained in their cages and offers to show anyone who doesn’t believe him. Even as he stands over the body of the first child, with her guts torn out of her body and gobbets bitten out of her flesh, he argues that it can’t be one of his wolves.
“Look at all these partial bites,” he says, pointing with a silver cane as he covers his nose with a scented handkerchief. “It didn’t know how to kill. You think one of my wolves would win if they hesitated like that?”
His assistant, who is still young enough to become attached to the dogs when they are pups and cries himself to sleep when one of them dies, walks three steps off to vomit behind a hedgerow.
With the second child, there are no hesitation marks, nor with the third or the fourth. Stories of dark, liquid shapes outside windows and whispers through locks spread through the city like a fever.
“Whosoever kills the beast,” the king proclaims, “he will rule after me.”
There are a group of knights there at the announcement, one of whom the king favors. The king knew Toran’s father and has watched over the boy as he grew into the fierce looking young man standing before him. Toran has killed wolves before, in the north. Everyone knows the king hopes it will be Toran who kills this wolf and takes the crown.
As the others are leaving, Toran walks toward the king. The king’s wolf bares his teeth and makes a sound, deep in his throat. The knight hesitates.
“Stop that, Elienad,” the king says, knocking his knee into the wolf’s muzzle. Courtiers stare. Everyone thinks the same thought and the king knows it, flushes.
“He is always with you, is he not?” Toran asks. The king narrows his eyes, furious, until he realizes that Toran is giving him a chance to speak without a protestation seeming like a sign of guilt.
“Of course he is,” says the king. “With me or locked up.” This is not true, but he says it with such authority that it seems true. Besides, the courtiers will tell one another, later, when the king is gone. Besides, the king’s wolf would be seen slipping back into the palace. The king’s wolf would surely have killed a nearby child. The killer could not be the wolf they have fed and cosseted and stroked.
Elienad sits, chews on the fur around one paw like it itches. His gaze rests on the ground.
Toran nods, unsure about whether he should have spoken. The king nods too, once, with a slight smile.
“Walk with me,” the king says.
The two men walk together down one of the labyrinthine hallways with the wolf trotting close behind.
“It is time to send him away,” the king’s chamberlain said softly. He is old and always chilled; he sits close to the fire, rubbing his knuckles as though he is washing his hands over and over again. “Or fight him. He’d make a good fighter.”
“Elienad hasn’t killed anyone,” the king said. “And he’s useful. You can’t deny that.”
The chamberlain served the king’s father and used to give the king certain looks when he was being a particularly obstinate child. The chamberlain gives him one of those looks now.
The king is no longer a child. He pours himself more wine and waits.
“Only commoners have been killed, yet,” the chamberlain finally says with an exasperated sigh. “Were a noble to die and it to come to light just what it is you’ve been keeping—”
The king takes a long drink from his cup.
The old man looks at the fire. “You should never have kept him for so long. It has only grown harder to part with him.”
“Yes,” the king said softly. “He is nearly grown.”
“And those tutors. I have always said it was too great a risk. And for what? So he can write down the things he overhears?”
“A well-informed spy is a better spy. He understands what to listen for. Who to follow.” The king rubs his mouth. He’s tired. He wishes his chamberlain would leave.
“The story you told me, years back, when you brought him here. Tell me again that it was the truth. That you didn’t know what he was when you bought him. That you bought him.”
The king is silent.
He does not know that his wolf lies on the cold stone outside of the door, letting the chill seep up into his heart.
The boy’s room is hidden behind curtains and a bookcase that shifts to one side. Only a very few people know how to find it. Inside the room is a carved bed, a boy’s bed, and now Elienad has to bend his knees to fit his legs inside of it. There are no windows and no candles, but his liquid eyes see as well here as they do beneath the table or in the labyrinth of the castle.
When the king comes in, he opens the bookshelf and lets light flood the little room. “What did you learn?” he asks.
“The pretty woman with the curls. Her name starts with an A, I think, and she likes to wear purple. She wants to poison her husband.” As he speaks, the boy carves a small block of wood. He has skill; the king can make out the beginning of a miniature crest.
“Who taught you how to do that?” the king demands, pointing to the knife.
Elienad shrugs slender shoulders. “No one.”
Which seems unlikely, but there is no reason for that to bother the king. Yet it does. The boy has recently turned thirteen and when the king thinks back on that age, he remembers telling many lies. Elienad’s jaw looks firmer than it did a year ago, his soft limbs turning into the lean, hard arms of an adult. Soon the king will know even less about what he does.
“Does she mean to do it?” he asks, “or is it just talk?”
“Amadine,” the boy says. “I remember her name now. She’s bought powder and honey to hide the taste. She says it will seem like he’s getting sick. Her friends are very proud of her. They say they are too frightened to kill their own husbands.”
The boy looks up at him, hesitating, and the king thinks that if Elienad were a human boy, it would be abominable to raise him as a spy with no companions save drunk scholars and the king himself.
“Go on,” the king says. “You have something else to tell me?”
The boy tilts his head to one side. His hair has gotten long. “Who was my mother?”
“I don’t know,” says the king, shaking his head. The boy asked for this story over and over again when he was very young, but he hasn’t asked in a long time. “I’ve told you how you were brought to me by hunters and I bought you from them.”
“Because I licked your hand,” the boy said. “I was the last of a litter. The other pups died of exposure.”
The king nods slowly; there is something new in the boy’s voice, something calculating.
“That’s not a true story,” he says.
The king thinks he should be angry, but what he feels is panic. “What do you mean?”
The boy is very calm, very still. “I could hear it in your voice. It isn’t a true story, but I can’t tell which parts are false.”
“You will not question me,” the king demands, standing. “I will not be questioned.” He thinks of Elienad, lying beneath tables, listening to the inflections of lies. Watching the hesitations, the gestures, the tensed muscles. Learning a language the king was unaware he even spoke.
“Did my brothers and sisters go to the fights?” the boy asks, and his voice hitches a little. He drops the wood and the knife on the bed and stands. “Was it you that found me? Maybe you shot my mother? Please just tell me.”
The king is too afraid to answer, afraid some movement will give him away. He stalks from the room. When he looks back, Elienad has not followed him.
“I won’t be mad,” the boy says softly as the door shuts.
The king’s heart is beating so loudly that he thinks everyone in the hall must hear it. To him, the sound is the dull thudding of something chasing him, something that speeds the faster he runs from it.
Late that night, the boy leaves his room and pads barefoot to the great hall where the throne is. He sits on the velvet and runs his hands over the carved wood. He imagines himself no longer cowering under a table. He imagines looking every one of the courtiers in the eye.
Every evening the knights ride out into the town and hunt. They patrol the streets until dawn and come back empty-handed.
One night, as the courtiers spin in a complicated dance that looks like cogs in a delicate machine, Toran walks into court, his armor wet and red. At the sight of the blood, ladies shriek and the wheels of spinning dancers come apart.
The king is flushed with exertion. “How dare you?” he demands, but Toran seems to ignore him, sinking down on one knee.
“The monster attacked me,” the knight says, his head still bowed. “We fought and I managed to slice off one of its paws.”
He opens a stained woven bag, but inside is no gory paw. Instead there is a slim hand with long, delicate fingers, pale save for the hacked flesh and severed bone at one end. And one finger is circled with a fat ruby ring.
There are more screams. Elienad smells blood and fear and the commingling of those scents wakes something coiled inside of him.
Toran drops the bag, rises, backs away. “Your majesty,” he stammers.
Elienad pads closer. Courtiers shrink from him.
“This hand came from a wolf?” the king asks, still hoping that somehow it has not come to this.
One of Toran’s party, all of whom idle near the doorway, not bold enough to interrupt the king, steps forward. “It was. We all saw it. That thing killed Pyter.”
“The rumors are all true! The creatures walk among us!” Lady Mironov says before swooning to the floor. She is practiced at swooning and is caught easily by her husband and his brother.
“It is gravely wounded,” says the king. “It will be tracked and destroyed.” He hopes it will be killed before it can be interrogated. He does not want to hear the things of which the creature might speak. His kingdom must have the illusion of safety, even at the cost of truth.
He does not remember the ring or the woman who wore it, but Elienad does. He recognizes the red stone and remembers the hand he licked clean under the table.
Elienad finds her by smell, behind Lord Borodin’s stables. The horses shift and whinny in their pens as he passes. Her blood has soaked the icy ground around her and dotted the snow with bright red holes, like someone scattered poisonous berries. She is wrapped in a horse blanket, stiff with gore. Her hair is tangled with dirt and twigs.
She has never seen him with a human face, but she knows him immediately. Her pale mouth curves into a smile. “I didn’t know they let you out of the palace,” she says. She is very beautiful, even dying.
“They don’t,” he says and kneels beside her. “Give me your arm.”
He ties his sash around it as tightly as he can and the bleeding ebbs. It is probably too late, but he does it anyway.
“It is a hunger never ending, to be what we are. It gnaws at my stomach.” Her eyes look strange, her pupils blown wide and black.
“Where did you come from?” he asks her. He doesn’t want to talk about the hunger, not with the smell of her blood making him dizzy.
“From the forests,” she says. “They caught my son. I thought it would be easy to find him. I had never even seen a city.”
He can’t help hoping. “Like me. They brought me—”
She sees his face and laughs. It is a thin rattling sound. “He’s dead. And you never came from any forest.”
“What do you mean?” he asks. He has brought a sack with men’s clothes. They are too loose for her in some places and too tight in others, but they are warm and dry.
She struggles to get the shirt over her head. Her shoulders are shaking with cold. “You were born here, in this city. Didn’t you know?”
“I don’t understand.” Part of him wishes she would stop talking because he feels as he does when he’s about to shift, like he’s drowning. The rest of him only wishes she would speak faster.
“A mirror would tell you more than I could.” Her sly look bothers him, but he still doesn’t know what she means.
He shakes off the questions. “We have to get you inside. Somewhere warm.”
“No. I can care for myself.” Her hand slides under her body. She holds out a knife. Toran’s knife. “I want you to take this and put it into the chest of the king.”
His eyes narrow.
“Have you been to the dog fights? Have you seen how we are set against each other, how we are kept in stinking pens?”
“You murdered those children,” he says softly. “And then you ate them.”
“Let them know what it is to have their babies snatched from them, what it is to be afraid and then find that they were killed for amusement. For amusement.” Her face is so pale that it looks like the snow. “You are not the only wolf he has kept, but the first one was grown when he got her. She died rather than become his pet. You are nothing but an animal to him.”
“I see,” he says. “Yes, you are right.” Elienad takes the knife from her cold hand. He looks at his face in its mirrored surface, and his features look as though they belong to someone else. His voice is only a whisper. “He must think I am an animal.”
The king leaves his court late and stumbles tipsily to his rooms. The court will continue to celebrate until they collapse beneath tables, until they have drunk themselves so full of relief that they are sick from it.
The king lights a lamp on his desk and begins to write the speech he will give in the morning. He plans to say many reassuring things. He plans to declare Toran his heir.
He hears a laugh. It is a boy’s laugh.
“Elienad?” the king asks the darkness.
There is silence, then the sound of laughter again, naughty and close.
“Elienad,” the king says sternly.
“I will be king after you,” the boy says.
The king’s hands begin to shake so hard that the ink on his pen nib spatters the page. He looks down at it as though the wet, black marks will tell him what to do now.
The boy moves into the lamplight, his face lit with an impish smile, showing white teeth.
“Please,” says the king.
“Please what, father?” The boy blows down the glass of the lamp and the light goes out.
In the darkness, the king calls the boy’s name for the third time, but his voice quavers. He remembers his age, remembers how stiff he is from dancing.
This time when he hears the boy’s laughter, it is near the door. He hears the footsteps as bare feet slap their way out the door and down the dark hall. Like the court, the king feels sick with relief.
Later, when the king lights the lamps—all of them—he will think of another woman, now long gone, and of her liquid eyes staring up at him in the dark. He will not sleep.
In the morning, he will make his way to the throne room. There, he will find courtiers gathered around a young boy with black hair in need of cutting. Beside the boy will be a corpse. The dead woman’s hand will be missing and her throat will be cut. Dimly, the king will remember that he promised the kingdom to whosoever killed the wolf. And the boy will smile up at him as the trap closes.
© 2010 by Holly Black.
Originally appeared in The Poison Eaters and Other Stories.
Reprinted by permission of the author.