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Authors: Angela J. Townsend

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BOOK: Amarok
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Emma crossed her arms and turned her back on him.

“I asked you a question!”

Emma ignored him, biting the inside of her cheek.

An autumn wind whistled past, sending skeletal leaves and brittle pine needles skittering across the snow. Emma heard his heavy footsteps crunching behind her. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, bracing herself.

He grabbed her by the hair and yanked her head back. “Answer me!”

Anger blistered her soul. Emma knotted her fists, spread her feet shoulder-width apart, and lashed out, kicking him hard in the knee.

“Shit!” He stumbled but recovered quickly, grabbing her from behind and pinning her arms at her sides. His sinewy body emanated a blazing heat that burned into her back like a brand. The stench of him turned her stomach, the smell increasing with every desperate flare of her nostrils. He leaned in closer, his rancid breath feathering her neck.

“Let go of me!”

“Not until you answer me!” he growled.

Emma clamped her lips tighter and he increased his grip, crushing her until she saw flashes of light dancing before her eyes. An intense drumming rushed into her ears and she realized that it was the frantic pounding of blood in her veins. Emma stopped struggling. She’d let go and die so she could be with her mother—tell her how much she loved her, how sorry she was for everything that’d happened. He loosened his grasp, and instinctively her lungs filled with life-giving air.

He burrowed his nose into her hair, sniffing like an animal, running his crusty lips along the base of her neck. “Mmmm, you smell good.”

He flicked his snake-like tongue around her ear and shoved a hand inside her coat as she lay trapped in his arms. Despite her weakness, she tried to punch and kick to get away but it did little good as the hammering in her head intensified. He could do whatever he wanted to her dead body. She’d be long gone, to a place where no one could hurt her. Flashes of light and darkness danced before her eyes and then she spotted the wolf, advancing. It crouched and then jumped through the air, sinking his fangs into the man’s arm.

The man let go of her and spun around, trying to free himself from the attack. He tripped and landed hard on his back beneath the enraged wolf. The creature released his arm and snapped at the man’s face in a fury, inches from tearing him apart. The man knocked the creature to one side, reaching inside his shirt to pull out an ivory object on a leather cord. The wolf hesitated, curling its lips in an angry snarl, then slunk away into the cover of the trees.

The man got to his feet scowling at her. “What are you looking at?”

Emma turned away, shivering. She couldn’t bear the thought of him touching her again, and if he really wanted her dead, why hadn’t he already killed her? Why bother to pack her through the woods into the middle of nowhere? Her shoulders sagged. Maybe death wouldn’t come as quickly as she’d hoped. Or as painlessly, for that matter. The frosty air burned her eyes, and tears froze to her face, stinging her cheeks.

She scanned the area for an escape route, watching the first golden glow of dawn peek over the snow-girdled mountains. Nothing looked familiar. How had they covered so much ground since last night, and in the dark? There’d be no roads. No landmarks. Her heart sank. No one to help her for miles. She’d welcomed death, but this wasn’t how she wanted it to end. Emma longed to see the sandy coastlines of California just once more before she died, and to see her friends. Guilt tugged at her heart. Emma knew her mother would’ve wanted her to survive. But her mother was dead—why should she be allowed to live when the accident had been her fault?

A flash of movement turned her attention to the wolf. For some reason the creature had saved her, and she was grateful. The wolf glared at her, its eyes full of mistrust. For the first time in a very long while, Emma felt something beside grief and despair. She felt empathy for another living, breathing life form. Before her mother’s death, before she was numb, she’d loved animals, especially huskies with their brilliant blue eyes and endless stamina. But this was no dog. This was a wild creature. Maybe not a purebred, as he looked different from the wolves she had seen in the wildlife museum in Wilsu, and even though he’d growled at her, she pitied the poor beast. The huge backpack he carried looked much too heavy for his frame. Judging by his temperament and his snapping response to her hand, he’d never known kindness. He seemed as miserable as she was, if not more so.

The kidnapper reached inside the folds of his fur-lined coat, pulled out a sinewy string of dried meat, and dangled it in front of the wolf’s nose. The wolf licked his muzzle and whined. The man jerked forward, stomping one foot as if to chase the beast, and the wolf recoiled. He grinned, watching the creature slink away. Fury branded Emma’s soul. How could anyone treat an animal so poorly?

The man scowled and tore the jerky in half. He handed Emma a piece. Her skin crawled at the greasy feel of the meat and the fragments of gristle still attached. The pungent odor of the dried flesh made her stomach churn and she knew she wouldn’t be able to keep it down.

Emma eyed the hungry wolf. Although muscular in the shoulders, she could count his clearly defined ribs. She pitied the poor animal, so alone, without anyone to care for him. Such a familiar feeling. Since her mother’s death, loneliness had leached the happiness from her bones, leaving only anger and sorrow battling inside of her. A lone wolf herself, she was every inch of five feet tall and barely weighed a hundred pounds. What she lacked in size, she made up in bravery. A thrill-seeker and storyteller, Emma wove tales of great danger to impress her friends—stories drummed up at the last minute to explain the scars lining her arms.

Emma swallowed hard. No story she’d ever told could match the truth of what was happening to her now.

The man turned his back, and Emma tossed the meat near the wolf. The animal crept closer, his head turned partly away in distrust. He paused, his cold, yellow eyes peering sideways at her, and then lowered his muzzle, noisily snapping up the offering.

The man spun around, lips tight with anger. He closed the space between them with big earth-eating strides. “How do you expect him to hunt for your dinner if he ain’t hungry?”

Before Emma could answer he snatched the front of her parka and shook her hard. Pain slashed into her neck, jarring her spine. She tried to pull away, but he jerked her even closer, inches from his face, his breath reeking of booze. “You just mind your own business, or I’ll shut you up for good.”

Emma pulled back. “Get your hands off me!”

He released her, cursing under his breath as he hiked to a nearby rock and sat with a heavy grunt. He cut his eyes at her. “How old are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?”

“Seventy-four!” she snapped. “What do you care?”

“Just wondering,” he said with a mouth full of jerky. “You might not get any older if you don’t watch that smart mouth of yours.”

“Why? What are you gonna do to me?”

He ignored her, chewing louder, raising his eyes to the frost-heavy wind.

Maybe this was the wrong approach. Maybe if she was nicer to him, she could get him to trust her, fool him into thinking she was his friend. When she was strong enough and the haze in her head cleared, she’d make a run for it.

Emma forced a smile, brushing the snow from her pants. “It must be hard for you living out here in the woods alone.” A stupid thing to say, but she couldn’t think of anything else.

He shrugged and narrowed his piggy eyes. Maybe he wasn’t as stupid as he looked. His gaze slipped from her face, traveling down her body. Emma’s skin grew even colder.

Maybe being friendly was a bad idea.

6

Tok stood on the brow of a hill and scanned the vast wilderness below him, trying to quell his sense of unease. Thankfully, he’d been able to fend off Weasel Tail’s attack on the girl and he’d continue to do so as long as his strength held out. He took a few short sniffs of the northern wind. The alarming scent he’d detected earlier had faded into the breeze. His eyes shifted to the girl. Tok hadn’t meant to snarl at her, to scare her. She’d surprised him by reaching out. He hadn’t been shown kindness in years, and his wolf instincts remained strong, along with the raw, unrelenting hunger burning in his belly.

He worked his way down the hill, pausing at the scent of arctic willow. His wolf heart quickened. The crisp leaves provided a tasty meal for caribou migrating to their winter quarters. Tok listened for the clicking sounds of tendons slipping over bones in their hooves as they walked. His mouth watered. Maybe he could find a weak one, take it down without a hard fight, and feast on its juicy flesh.

Tok crested another rise in the landscape, wondering how much humanity he retained, and if someday it would disappear completely. It frightened him to think how much of himself he’d already lost. The memories of his parents came and went. Some days, when the blood sang in him, he could hardly remember being a man, and now the first act of kindness he’d received in many years he’d repaid with a snap of his jaws. He desperately wished he could tell her how sorry he was, but words were denied him now.

Tok scanned the lonesome terrain for prey. Nothing. Not even a lemming. He scratched at the frosty earth, circled a few times, and settled down. The afternoon sky vaulted above him in shades of gray, adding to his gloom. Gnawing on the ice that had collected between his toes, he fought to remember more of his past. Memories, deep and chilling as the Bering Sea, washed over him.

The summer he turned seventeen, his family followed the lure of the gold rush from Canada to Alaska. Tok’s father had marveled at their good fortune to settle in such a pristine valley, near clear, cool, running water. Natives warned them to stay away. The land wasn’t safe. For centuries, every creature that came near had died or disappeared
.

The last day Tok spent with his father, they walked the trap lines, checking all of their favorite spots. Father stood in the summer sun, pushed back his beaver-skin cap and smiled, pleased with their catch and proud of his son’s work. His father spoke of a rich future, on this fertile land. They’d come in sight of their cabin as the sun sank over the mountaintops when they spotted the old native—neither Inupiat nor Yupik, but from some unknown tribe—standing in the distance. Just standing, and staring. Father waved and called to the old man to come closer if he wished
.

Few natives ever passed this way. They did not like to enter this valley and spoke in hushed whispers of curses and crooked spirits. The few who did would trade what they had or sometimes, when the harsh winter was at its worst, beg for scraps of food. Tok’s father always spared what they could, when they could, and in return the natives offered spells of protection. This land made them uneasy, they explained. It wasn’t safe. But for all his kind heart, Tok’s father was a proud man; he wouldn’t let the land beat him, or let himself be driven away by superstition. Tok would often find carved sticks and bones by the front of his house, totems left by the natives to ward off dark spirits. Tok’s father would laugh and throw them on the fire. “We have no need of charms,” he would say. “God protects.”

A chill penetrated Tok’s spine as the old man stood and stared, not acknowledging his father or his offer. Later that night, the flicker of a campfire blazed in the distance. Tok swore he could hear a quiet moaning, but his father frowned and blamed it on the wind. Tok went to bed with a troubled feeling. He woke to the sounds of vomiting
.

Father brushed off their concern for his health, claiming time would heal him. Tok’s mother fed him warm bread and broth, but everything his father ate came up again. The day wore on and his father grew paler, sitting in front of the hearth, shivering despite the roaring blaze. Tok kept the fire high, trying to fight his father’s illness with sweat and hard work
.

Father groaned and complained about the fuss, insisting he had work to do and he needed to shake this sickness before nighttime or it would be too dark to check the snares. Tok went in his place. By the time he returned, darkness coated the land
.

Tok stood on the porch before entering the cabin. The campfire still flickered in the same place it had the night before. He opened the cabin door greeted by the sweltering heat of a furnace, yet his father still sat in front of the fire and shivered. His mother stood next to her husband, holding his hand, the tears drying on her cheeks in the heat. Father stared into the fireplace, incoherent mumbling the only sign he still clung on. Tok knew then that the old native somehow, God only knows how, had something to do with this. He took a rifle from its place over the mantle and rummaged in the great shoulder bag his father took with him on their walks. Tok’s hands closed over the bullets. He threw the door open and rushed outside
.

His fear for his father’s health brought tears that blurred his sight, but he didn’t care. He hiked to the fire and pointed the weapon at the old native’s chest, but his shot went high and wide. And in that one act, something changed. Like the snapping of elastic stretched too tight, something was different. Then he heard his mother cry out, and he ran back to the cabin to find his father slumped forward in the chair, a last thread of saliva running down to the quilt in which he was wrapped
.

BOOK: Amarok
13.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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