THE WOLF-SISTERS by Susan Price

1 12 2017

Saxon England, 7th Century

He heard leaves crumpling as pads pressed them down, and the swish of a strong tail sweeping aside stems. A cold nose pressed into his neck, and he opened his sore eyes to see that the wolves had returned. The wolf nearest him lay down and rolled in the grass. Its fur parted, and a naked woman sat up from the skin like a woman rising from under a wolf-skin coverlet in the midst of a wood. ‘Come and run with us,’ she said.
‘I can’t.’
She reached out and gripped his arm hard. Tugging, she dragged him to his feet. The trees, the sky, spun around him and, dizzily looking down, he saw a man lying among the leaves and greenery. He thought it strange that another man should be there, deep in the wood, until he realised that he was looking at himself.
‘Come, come,’ said the woman, and pushed at his shoulder and pulled at his hand. He started in the direction she moved him. His legs, his feet, moved, but he felt no contact with the ground. Ahead of him, through the grey and green of the wood, he saw the grey wolves loping, their tails held high. Their forelegs and ribs stretched for the stride, their paws hit the ground and kicked it behind. The third wolf quickly joined them. Kenelm tried to run faster, to stay with the wolves, and he flew – as he had in dreams – flying through the trees, above the brambles and grass and toadstool-grown logs – flying like a seed-wisp on a breeze.
Through the arches of trees – bounding across streams, plunging through thickets – mile after mile. Until the wolves stopped and threw up their heads, drawing in the air. They went on slowly, nosing through the undergrowth, slinking about trees, their heads low and their ears pricked. Kenelm hovered with them, brushing their fur, drifting with them.
A track ran through the wood, and from the track came the bawling of sheep, human laughter and singing, the sound of feet on soft, muddy earth, the trampling of hoofs …

This is ostensibly a book for children but if the publishers did not announce that back and front, we would never guess. It is the story of a young man, Kenelm, an atheling, a nephew of the King and descendant of Woden, who was, when very young, sent to be a monk by his uncle the King. Not because the King is a Christian – far from it – but, it seems, on the principle of “Know your enemies” and so as to have someone loyal to him on the inside. The boy was never consulted.

Now a reluctant young monk who still at heart worships Woden and hates every minute of his life in the monastery, Kenelm is summoned to court by one of the King’s counsellors because everyone is ill and no other atheling is available to deliver an important message. The message is to the Wood-People, begging their aid against invaders who are taking advantage of the epidemic to plunder the country. In the wood, Kenelm delivers the message – to three Wood-Women, sisters, who are shape-shifters and take the form of wolves to harry the foreigners.

Will Kenelm return to the monastery? Will he be reinstated at court by a grateful monarch? Will he join the Wood-People?

Note, though, that this is a book in which the Christians, a tiny minority in a land still pagan to the core, are regarded as freaks – and stupid, too.

‘Oh, sister! You are welcome!’ said the Abbess. ‘Speak to me – tell me your name!’
‘Why are you in our wood? Why did you break our tree?’ It was Wulfruna.
‘It is Jesus’ wood,’ said the Abbess. ‘All the world is His creation.’

If that kind of thing upsets you, don’t read it. Otherwise, do. It is a great little read, full of medieval magic and mystery – shape-shifting, astral travel, agelessness – but “little”, yes. When I finished it, I felt as though I had just read the first part of a real novel. I wanted (still want, Ms Price!) to know what happens to Kenelm next.

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