When Jade was thirteen her cousin who was the jarl's heir was taken on search by the wolfheall. The jarl's heart was broken, though in the end he remarried to a woman from the South who had twins of an age with his son, to see if he should not adopt the boy twin as his heir maybe, or failing that, should the boy not take to the training, have another son by his new wife.
Jade was living in a hut outside of the safe walls of the village with her grandfather (as he was, as they whispered, a practitioner of seithr) and could bring her uncle no comfort.
When Jade was fifteen there was the last great war against the trolls, and her village was destroyed, and many fled, and many more died, which she only knew afterwards; Jade herself and her house were never found by either wolfthreat or trolls. Not until the very end, when her grandfather smiled at her and told her to go gather some plants, before the winter buried it all, and she came back to his corpse and a troll's corpse, holding onto each other as if in love in the middle of a burned patch of grass.
She spent the day and night that followed with her crossbow in hand, but no other fleeing trolls stumbled upon their house.
Jade turned sixteen in the middle of winter, her house under seven feet of snow. She had food enough for two and she would probably be fine; but boredom and grief had her spending the next week digging a snow tunnel to the woods, and a second, and a third, and then she went on her snowshoes looking for ... she didn't know what. People, animals. Anything.
She found the remnants of her village, which she only remembered from childhood -- she'd been seven when her grandfather decided to leave, before the mutters and dark looks escalated.
She only missed her cousin who she barely remembered, and her uncle, and his two stepchildren who she'd only seen three, four times as she visited for provisions, but liked well enough. She turned her back to the crumbled walls and went back to the forest.
Seven days after the winter solstice a heavy beast came through her snow tunnel and scratched at her door. When she looked through the crack she could see only the white of snow.
She took her crossbow and opened anyway.
It wasn't a bear or a ghost but a trellwolf, white as snow just fallen and his eyes two black pits, gouged out, gone. Long since healed; ugly scars but healthy ones. She let him in.
He told her his name; it was the sharp scent of flint stone, the blood-prickle of scratched copper on the tongue.
It didn't take her long to understand that when he filled her nose with the sharp, fresh, clean scent of a snowy hilltop on a calm night, he was calling to her.
When Jade was sixteen and three fifths and summer was close she packed up and she cleaned and closed up her home and she followed Bec south.
They didn't know what to do with her, at the first wolfheall she found, or the second -- a woman with a trellwolf. This couldn't be. Just as seithr as a man lying with men, she told the second wolfcarl, who was annoying her, or a wolf's magic given to men, and Bec barely needed use of her eyes to snap his teeth closed on the man's wolf's muzzle in reprimand, so closely the beast crowded hers. They left the next day on a path Bec chose, as always, and she tried not to feel depressed, not to feel this was her grandfather's unlucky legacy.
Tried not to feel Bec's cautious hope, for she didn't understand the root of it.
She didn't know the smell for she had not had a nose before Bec and Bec didn't know the smell either... per se, but he could tell somehow, anyway, because he was first to recognized a man he had never met.
The man had a bitch with him, younger than Bec but an adult already, intensely golden-furred; they were playing and then she froze and stared at Bec and Jade in suspicion and then Bec was yipping, barking his weird doglike bark Jade had named him after, tail wagging. The young man greeted the two of them with a wave of his gloved hand and then stared; she braced for confusion, hostility, awkwardness.
A litter of puppies, Bec was telling her. A litter of puppies born from two sister bitches, raised in the same basket.
When he hugged her, fierce and tight, and laughed in her ear -- oh, cousin, you're alive! You have a brother wolf, of course you have a brother wolf! -- she cried a little, and then she laughed right back at him and hugged him until his ribs cracked.
John's wolfheall took Jade and Bec in.
John's sister was Casey, one of the subordinate bitches. She would never be a konigenwolf, never rule the pack, but she would do someone well as a second in command one day.
Jade never did swear herself a man, never did abandon her womanhood, but in the hall with the beasts and the wolves it was easier to bind her breasts, to braid her hair back, to forego womanish attire lest she was mistaken, even in jest, for one of the kitchen thrall and not a wolfsister in her own right. She just brought down her kills and threw a punch with the same ruthless, forthright attitude and they laughed and slapped her back and and slowly got used to treating her as a man in truth.
At the tail end of the following autumn the raiding parties came back home to winter. With them they brought back news of the war -- the strange southerners with their empire did mean to conquer the whole of the Iskryne, and would not be talked into going away. Winter would pause them for a while, but come spring it would be war again, war against men this time and not trolls.
(All the young men who had been left behind this time would have to come. Jade thought if anyone remembered what she was and tried to leave her behind with the old and the infirm she would savage them and go alone. She made sure to keep it out of the pack mind, but some of it must have leaked because John elbowed her and winked. Probably he thought the same.)
With them they brought back a man from the south, dark of skin and eyes like coal, they brought back a night-black wolf whose presence at the edge of the pack mind felt like the scream of a wolf caught in the grip of the drooling madness.
They whispered that the wolf's old use-name had been Slick and that he would turn upon any who used it, now. The beast when Jade saw him was missing an eye and the wound looked too clean, too deliberate to be anything else. His front leg bore a scar, as if someone had tried to cut it off, and gouged deep enough that the fur would not grow back after it healed, and on that leg he limped.
No one gave any tasks to the stranger, any directions; they all scattered and left him stranded in the yard, so Jade stalked past the raiders with Bec and his ruined face at her side and when the man braced to take a punch and the black wolf turned on them like a rabid thing she took the man's wrist and towed him away.
Bec and the black wolf would have fought but Casey pounced on the black one, all playful bitch-wolfness, and he was jarred enough to forget to fight for a second and then Bec was turning away. The black wolf wasn't wrong enough in his mind that he would savage a wolf presenting his hindquarters to him. She tugged on the man's wrist, pointed at him with a crossbow-roughened hand. "You. Tell your wolf, shhhh."
The man was staring at her with his impossibly black eyes. She scowled a bit. He threw his free hand up. "Yes! Yes, yes."
She guided him inside the great hall, John following on their heels humming a song. She sat the man at a table in the corner, and watched him, felt hints of him, trying to soothe his wolf.
That he managed it, eventually, was the greatest surprise of all. The black wolf came to rest his head on the man's lap, lip quivering malevolently, and the man cautiously, so cautiously traced his skull through the dark fur, like he thought even such a light touch might hurt, or get him bitten.
Bec leaned in and offered his and Jade's name, was growled at, waited patiently until Casey popped in with her lizard basking on sunny rocks and John's jay in a pine tree and the wolf ... opened.
They were so lonely Jade could have cried. Even after her grandfather's death, snowed in, she hadn't felt (let herself feel) that yawning lack, that desperate search for anything to cling to. The wolf didn't want to feel it, was hostile and hateful to any reminder. The man was another story.
John went off and came back with bread and cold meats for them, and she sat there on the bench with her hand still on the man's elbow until he could blink back his tears and say Karkat when she asked his name, Noir when she asked the wolf's.
(She was sure it hadn't been, before.)
The scent name Noir gave in the end was of burning fur and red-hot metal, tangled with pain; not his name from before, just something he was, now. Through him Karkat's name was a simple blood and sharpened iron, a terrible name for a man who could not stop crying, that first night, rolled in a ball on his pallet as his wolf roamed the woods alone.
Noir didn't gentle much, but he grew less unpredictable, less aggressive with the pack. (Visitors had to be met and escorted.) Karkat asked for tasks to fulfill, tried to learn their tongue, for all that he would often pause and stare and pinch the bridge of his nose, flooding the pack sense with this is not right and savages-barbarians-witches. He was a witch now. He had a wolf.
"You could leave Noir, you know," John told him once, trying to give him comfort, and they almost came to blows.
He'd left Noir once, left him and his brother, he'd asked for another duty (shame at his own cowardice), and they'd tested the bond and the wolf-witchery until Noir's brother died a monstrous death, until Noir lost himself to the berserkr bloodlust and almost didn't find the way back. Never again.
Jade watched John hug Karkat and apologize, watched the way Karkat's face slackened with surprise, with something frail and tender, and was satisfied.
Bec still went and pinched John's rump with his teeth as punishment for being stupid, because, seriously now.
Winter came, the first light snow, and she and John took to bracketing Karkat with their bodies when they walked or sat, because he shook and rattled with cold fit to shake his teeth loose without stop, and it wasn't even the darkest, windiest part of winter.
Winter came, and Casey's second heat.
"We're not choosing a pack leader with her," John explained, "and she's still young and we need to refresh the bloodlines, so it'll be an open breeding." He smiled, and tried to look brave, and explained exactly what that meant.
The scent of a snowy hilltop at night, a feeling like a question, and she told Bec, Casey's brother is scared that when she mates, there will be a lot of dogs, and he will be hurt. She tried not to think about what she was telling him, but that wasn't how it worked with wolves.
Wolves didn't understand that the brothers of bitches weren't built like them, couldn't accommodate so many males easily. When the heat came upon them they forgot the rest, anyway.
Lots of mates, hurts?
She left him to his thoughts. She didn't know what to think, herself. She's heard rumors, so many of them, a lot of them ugly, or dirty or both, but this was plenty bad. Necessary, she knew that now, but. Harsh.
Bec wasn't of Casey's line. He could breed her if he chose.
Bec was blind, was the first thought she had in counter; and he is my cousin.
Through John's father, though, not his mother; it would not bring blighted children, and besides the wolves chose, it didn't matter what the humans thought. And Casey was the one being bred, Jade herself was not having any -- Bec was blind, he could not fight, and especially not fight hard enough to chase off every other contender! Open matings usually -- three to six...
Noir will fight with us.
Bec and Noir disliked each other, though they tried to be scrupulously polite because Jade had adopted Karkat and was Karkat's pack now.
Caught in the pack's mating frenzy she still had time to wonder at the synchronicity between them, at the way they teamed up -- one whole eye between the two of them, and Noir's fury would herd other dog wolves straight into Bec's lightning maw time and time again. She swayed and tripped other wolfbrothers and kicked and punched, joined brawls and laughed like a howl, got punched in the eye and bled all over her face, her back to blood and iron, fierce now, a lost, meek young man no longer. They fought until the other dog wolves retreated, the other wolfbrothers stumbled back to get drunk, get bandaged.
Karkat fell on his knees behind John first, hands shaking, lost and hesitant once again, but that only lasted as long as it needed for Noir to mount Casey, growl gone soft as if trying his hand at a reassuring purr.
Jade knelt beside them, a hand offered and caught in John's white-knuckled hand, and waited for her turn.
They were going to have to be inventive, but she didn't mind much. Mimicking them was easier when dragged under by the grip of their instinct, but so long as the wolves' hunger was satiated she didn't think they much minded how.
"You're a woman?" Karkat screeched at her the next morning, naked in her bed furs. She rolled over John's trustingly limp, exhausted body and showed him how much of one she was.