Mari popped a wild raspberry into her mouth, then wiped the red juice from her fingers on the grass. She tossed her long brown braid over her shoulder, picked up her basket of berries, and began making her way back to the path.
“Come, Odin,” she called. “Time to go home. Leave some rabbits for next time.”
Odin rarely needed a second shout, even in the heat of a chase. This time, though, he was riveted on the mountain trail, staring intently into the nearby treeline, thick with shadows and pines. What had gotten into him? Ever since Papa had tucked Odin in her arms three years ago on her eighth birthday, when he wasn’t much larger than a rabbit himself, he had been her constant companion. He followed her bidding before he was old enough for training, and now, as large as he was, he did whatever she said, even if her command was given in a whisper. This time he didn’t budge, didn’t even seem to hear her.
As Mari neared the path, she noticed rustling in the trees. Low pine branches swayed, and something substantial was shuffling through the dried needles on the forest floor, heading toward the trail. She reached for the scruff of Odin’s neck and buried her fingers in the bristled fur of his raised hackles.
“Come, boy, we’re not here to hunt,” she whispered firmly, tugging at his neck. It was late August, so bears had been seen along the mountainsides, usually gorging themselves on ripe berries. But Odin’s Norwegian elkhound instincts were on full alert, and Mari anticipated a bark was ready to spring from his black throat at any moment.
“No, Odin.” She spoke quietly but firmly, and tugged again, this time trying to drag them both away from the berry brambles and down the open slope. “Let’s go home.”
That’s when she heard voices speaking – in German. Her already racing heartbeat escalated, thumping against her ribs. She bent lower and wrapped her arms around Odin’s powerful neck and shoulders, trying to drag him away from the trail that headed back down the mountain to the village below.
Maybe they should stay out of sight, she thought. Maybe it wasn’t a bear. Maybe it was something she feared more. German soldiers. They were everywhere in her village, and were said to patrol the mountain trails too, looking for suspicious activity.
But Odin wouldn’t budge. The black elkhound dug in, rooted to the spot, as steady and solid as a boulder. His lips curled back from his teeth. She heard a low rumble deep in his chest, a sound she had never heard from him before.
Odin’s stare was locked on the treeline as two soldiers emerged. Both had their sidearms drawn, and one of the two was pointing his handgun at a third figure: Mr. Meier, her neighbor from the village. He stumbled ahead of the two Germans. Mari realized with a shock he had his hands tied behind his back.
Odin growled, then quieted to that rumble deep in his throat and chest. His lips pulled back even further in a snarl. Mari buried her face in the coarse scruff of his neck and gasped, realizing they would be seen. When she lifted her head she saw that the second soldier was stopped on the trail just a few meters away from her, his gun aimed straight at Odin.
She recognized him right away. This pair of soldiers often patrolled together in Ytre Arne, and they had nicknames among the villagers. It was “Scarecrow” who faced her with the gun, a tall, scrawny soldier who seemed impossibly loose-limbed and lanky. Mari had seen him goose-stepping in formation and wondered how he kept from tripping over his own feet. His thick blond hair stuck out from under the back of his cap like straw.
The other soldier, the short one, was “The Rat.” His dark bristly mustache and muddy brown eyes were unexpected, since most of the German soldiers were blonde and fair, typical of the “superior” race Hitler so admired.
The Rat kept his gun pointed at Mr. Meier’s head. As the villager paused, The Rat shoved him in the back, causing the old man to stagger and fall to his knees.
“On your feet, stupid Jew!”
Odin’s rumble deepened, building toward a growl, but Mari stroked his side and tried to quiet him. Mr. Meier leaned on his elbow and scrambled to his feet. When he limped forward Mari saw blood flowing from his knee, soaking his ripped pants. Blood also trickled down the side of his face from a cut near his eye, spreading across his reddened, swelling cheek. Her gut twisted, and she clutched at Odin’s fur to stop the trembling in her hands.
“Move,” The Rat ordered, nudging the gun’s muzzle into her neighbor’s back. He muttered in German to Scarecrow with a jerk of his head toward Mari and her dog, “Find out what they’re doing here, and then bring the pack.”
Speaking German was no challenge for Mari, or for most Norwegians her age and older, but she followed the lead of her family and neighbors, pretending not to understand. It was the least they could do to show respect for their exiled King Haakon. She usually felt a smug satisfaction in forcing the occupiers to use Norwegian, watching them stammer and struggle for words at times.
Now it was she who was struggling, for breath, not words.
She tightened her hug, pressing herself into Odin’s side. Her body trembled uncontrollably against Odin’s rock-solid stance.
[Excerpted from the first chapter of Odin’s Promise, by Sandy Brehl, a middle-grade historical novel released May 17, 2014.)