Wlvn never said anything, but he had imagined for some time that he had lived other lives in the past and many more in the future. He supposed it was his way of escaping the hardship and hopelessness of his daily life—to pretend to be someone else in some other land and some other time. He also thought at times that it was not exactly a sign of mental health, but then, he had little else to live for. Sadly, most of what he supposedly remembered about those lives seemed a plague of useless information, given his present life and circumstances. He could not remember anything about working in metals or even how to build a plow better than the stone and bone contraption they used. Sometimes he imagined that certain information was being kept from him, deliberately, for some reason. Only now, Wlvn felt certain that, given the opportunity, he could fly the craft he identified as a shuttle. This information did not come to him from the Storyteller, the Princess, Diogenes, or Doctor Mishka for that matter; the four people he imagined as lifetimes he would live one day, far in the future. They were lives with which he was slowly becoming familiar, yet as impossibly far in the future as those lifetimes felt, he knew they were not far enough. The knowledge of the shuttle had to be coming to him from even further in the future, from a lifetime of which he was not even aware. “Unless, of course, this is not the first life where I have encountered whoever these helpers are,” he mumbled out loud.
“Son?” Father looked up.
“Nothing.” Wlvn shook his head. He looked at his feet. He had a great deal to think about as they inched forward, one wagon space at a time. Naturally, the first thing he thought of was more of the useless stuff. He guessed that this line of wagons might be the first traffic jam in human history.
Wlvn took a step and someone touched him square on the forehead and whispered, “My son, even when you are not my son.” The words were spoken with the kind of true whisper where he could not tell if it was a man or woman speaking. He looked up and saw the back of a full-length cloak and hood, which told him nothing. This cloak walked, unnoticed, against the train of wagons. It walked slowly and deliberately away from the center of the universe. Wlvn touched his forehead, but nothing had been put there. When he looked again, the cloak was gone. He stood on his toes and tried to look over and around all of the wagons behind, but the cloak was not there. Whoever it was, had vanished into thin air.
“Son.” Father’s word sounded a bit more urgent.
“Sorry father.” Wlvn tried to assume the right position and attitude. He mirrored his father as well as he could.
They did stop when it got dark, but Father proved right; little sleep came Wlvn’s way. With the first light of dawn, they started again, and Wlvn got his first real look at the helpers. Some walked up the line to be sure everyone got up and started moving. They had whips.
The helpers hardly looked human, being squat, very muscular, with great brow ridges and sloping foreheads. But they had to be human, didn’t they? Wlvn pondered all of this and searched his memory. He searched through time to those few lifetimes he could remember, but neither the Princess, the Storyteller, Diogenes, nor Mishka told him anything. He knew it was pointless to ask Flern, a fifth lifetime he often remembered in detail, and one that made him uncomfortable. Flern was a girl. Wlvn could not imagine living life as a girl. True, the Princess and Doctor Mishka were girls, but they were far enough away in the future, and generally older, so he could overlook that reality. Flern lived too near him in time and shared a similar culture, living almost as Neolithic a life as his own. He could not imagine being a she. He decided not to think about it at all.
By the time their turn came, Wlvn started thinking of his mother, Gndr, Strn, and little Brmr. He managed to get himself into the right position and the right attitude, as his father told him, so he felt a little surprised when one of the helpers came up to him, grinning, holding tight to something in his fat fist.
“How old is this one?” The ugly brute looked hopefully at the one who examined the grain offering. Father had just finished explaining about Mother being home with the baby and the two younger children. Father hid nothing, he did not dare, but when asked the question, he had to blink. An expression crossed his face that looked briefly like fear for his son.
“Fifteen.” Father spoke honestly enough. Wlvn wanted to say nearly sixteen, but something held his tongue.
The one beside the grain shook his head to the disappointment of the other, and then he spoke in words that no one among Wlvn’s people should have been able to understand. Wlvn’s surprise turned to shock. He understood the words, perfectly.
“We don’t take them that young, however tempting, lest they cease producing and we run out of selections altogether,” the chief helper said. “And we don’t take the fathers until the sons are old enough to take over.” With that, the chief helper put a mark on the back of their hands and told them exactly where to put their grain. Father moved them on.
“Quickly,” he said; but Wlvn moved slowly, still in a bit of shock. He could not keep his eyes from staring back, in part for understanding what they said, but in large part for realizing that the bone the grinning one nibbled on was not an animal bone, but the end of a human leg. Wlvn looked away before his empty belly emptied itself further.
“Come on, son.” Father risked speaking again. “Quickly now.” They were the last ones to fill that bin, after which the wagons would be sent over to the other side, and Wlvn tried to concentrate, but again he got distracted. A man that was clearly a man, not one of the ugly brutes, kept staring at them. He seemed to point at them with a boney hand, a hook nose, and a pointed chin, all pointing together. Wlvn thought the man looked crooked in some strange way, yet he was about to smile a friendly smile when the man floated up into the air. It seemed the man was looking for something and thought perhaps a little height might help it come into focus. Wlvn looked away, thinking, this is one of the gods! The man came back down to his feet, walked off to the other side, and Wlvn breathed. Then he remembered the man’s name when a memory came to him from somewhere in time. Loki! Wlvn also remembered his feelings were not kind toward that particular god.
“Son.” Father tried again, and Wlvn began to empty the grain from the cart into the bin, but for a third time he became distracted. This time, it was a face, a girl’s face. The girl appeared to be a prisoner in a cage, a small cage, like one a lion or tiger might occupy in an old city zoo or on a circus train. Wlvn felt his jaw drop because the girl looked absolutely stunning, though she could not have been older than thirteen. Wlvn paused, in part because he was not sure if the girl called to him. Perhaps the call came only in his mind, but it came with enough pull to garner his attention.
“Son.” Once again, father’s voice required his attention. Wlvn hurried to finish unloading, at which point Father was for getting out of there as quickly as possible. Wlvn spoke before they could turn from the bin.
“Turn this way, Father, please. I am asking you to trust me, and I can’t explain just now, but please.” He asked his father to turn the cart around by heading deeper into the camp rather than away from the center of the universe. Father looked at him, dumbly, but there must have been real urgency in his plea because his father complied. Then came the hard part.
“Stop here,” Wlvn said, and he pulled hard on the oxen collar to stop the beast from turning further. “Pretend you are having trouble with the harness, fix the wagon, anything, only stay here for a minute.” Again, Wlvn’s father raised an eyebrow, but he noticed that all eyes were turned in the other direction where they were presently sending the wagons, so he said nothing, and he began to fiddle with the rigging. He watched his son melt away behind the nearest small building.
Wlvn found the back of that building to be a genuine cage with metal bars and everything. The girl stood right there, so close, in fact, she was able to reach her skinny arm through the bars and touch Wlvn’s cheek almost as quickly as he saw her.
“Wlvn.” He whispered his name.
“Eir.” She gave hers as she studied his face. “You are not the one,” she said at last and collapsed. “I saw your hair, it is like his, the color of the sunset, but your eyes are not his. Your eyes are brown, like the mud. His eyes are as dark as the night, though sparkling as if full of stars. And yet…” She sat up a little straighter. “I sense that you and he are very close, that somehow, he must come and stand in your place.” Eir withdrew her hand and withdrew herself into her captivity.
Wlvn was not sure what he felt, but a storm brewed somewhere in time, and it was such a storm, Wlvn dreaded to think what might happen if that storm ever got loose. “You are a prisoner.” He made it a statement.
“Since I was a baby,” Eir answered softly. “I am a hostage. I barely remember my mother and father, but one day my Nameless, red-haired, black-eyed warrior will come and save me. I have seen it in the setting sun. I have felt it in the earth and heard it whispered in the wind.” She fell silent.
“It will be me.” Wlvn spoke without hesitation in his voice, like he was speaking undeniable truth. “Though perhaps not in this lifetime,” he concluded, strangely. Eir frowned, but only for a moment before her expression changed because of some understanding that Wlvn could not yet grasp. His own thoughts got interrupted by his father.
“Son. They have noticed,” Father said, and Wlvn felt obliged to return to the cart even as Father spoke more loudly. He nudged the ox and they turned toward the road for home.
Wlvn spoke of his encounter several times on the way home, but Father always had the same basic answer. “It is not our concern. There is nothing we can do for her.”
Wlvn finally let out his deepest feelings about the issue. “But I believe she is being held as a hostage against the gods. I think that she, herself, may be a goddess.”
Father looked horrified at that thought, but still he said, “There is nothing we can do.”
Wlvn and his family made it through the worst of the winter, though not everyone in the village survived. Three elderly people and two children died of the winter plague. Wlvn knew it was likely some strain of pneumonia, a disease against which he felt powerless. Despite having access to his future life as Doctor Mishka, the only thing she suggested was near starvation and malnutrition contributed mightily. Wlvn got angry and cried. He imagined his future lives were as bad as everyone around him. There is nothing we can do, he thought.