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Authors: Angela J. Townsend

Amarok (6 page)

BOOK: Amarok
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Emma’s heart sank. She missed everything about Southern California: Venice Beach with its cozy cottages and scenic walkways, shopping down Melrose Avenue, hanging out at the arcade eating junk food with friends. She even missed the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, and fighting the flood of tourists flocking to Disneyland on spring break. But most of all, she missed their cozy apartment on Fountain Avenue. She’d do anything to time-travel. To stick the key she still carried on her keychain into the sun-bleached door. To turn the doorknob, walk inside, and to smell her mother’s famous chicken soup simmering on the stove.

Emma turned away, unable to watch as the wolf tore out the caribou’s throat.

10

Tok liked the sound of his new name—Amarok. And he liked the way the girl whispered it when she caressed his rugged hide. The softness in her eyes when she spoke ignited a fire inside of him—a will to carry on living. A purpose to be alive, to be with her, to protect her. No longer would he be called Tok. Tok was a prisoner in a wolf’s body—Amarok was the brave warrior inside the wolf. From now on he would be Amarok—just for her.

He remained at the kill, feasting on what Weasel Tail hadn’t cut up and divided among their backpacks. With his belly filled, he returned from the valley to the hillside where Weasel Tail had built a fire and roasted a slab of meat. Even the girl ate, which made Amarok feel good. He liked providing for her as a man should. His soaring spirits crashed. Even with a new name, he still wasn’t a man. He was a wolf, and she adored him like a pet dog. Still, he enjoyed her fond feelings.

For so long, his soul had been an empty void. Until now, he couldn’t imagine how it was possible to feel anything but misery. This girl was his pinhole of light in an abyss of darkness. He curled protectively beside her, near the crackling fire, and chewed on a piece of antler he’d carried from the carcass. The calcium-rich snack would replace the minerals leached from his bones during weeks of utter starvation.

While he gnawed on the horn, he surveyed the area. He questioned Weasel Tail’s judgment in setting up camp so close to the kill. The meat would draw predators from miles away. They were less than two days from the cabin, better to keep going. He hated to think of what Weasel Tail had in store for the girl, hated the thought of his filthy hands on her. If things got out of control, he’d rip the man’s throat out. He would gladly sacrifice his own life for hers. He’d lived long enough, and what kind of a life did he have anyhow? One of abject misery and sorrow. Until the girl had come, he hadn’t fully realized the cost of being a wolf, how he’d never be able to have a family of his own, or the comfort of a woman at his side.

Amarok watched the girl as she stared into the fire, her eyes filled with pain. More than being kidnapped troubled the girl, something far deeper. She didn’t seem to care any more about her own life than he did for his. He wanted desperately to lean against her knee, and to feel her soothing touch, to reassure her that everything would be all right, even though he had his own doubts, but he had to stay alert and guard her.

Sleep tormented him like the scent of fresh blood. He longed to lay his muzzle on his paws and allow the food in his belly to lull him to sleep. With a little rest and the fuel in his gut, he’d be strong as steel again. His confidence escalated. No matter what happened, he’d be resilient enough to protect her now.

Weasel Tail rested near the fire, his head against his pack. At his feet, the girl curled up against a log, shivering in spite of the flames. While they slept, Amarok thought of all the tundra’s hungry predators. He heard the calls of the pack of wolves that lived to the east, and the sneaky footsteps of an arctic fox. When he finally dozed off, his dreams were nightmarish. They kept him half-awake and he was glad. It enabled him to stay alert to any danger lurking nearby.

The yips and howls of the distant wolf pack increased in the hours just before daybreak. Without so much as snapping a twig or rustling a leaf, they crept like ghosts, peering from behind trees and snow-topped boulders. Amarok felt their piercing gaze, caught an occasional blur of movement, but none of this was of any real concern. What troubled him was the bloody carcass luring in the one beast that terrified him, the one creature who stalked the herds of mankind with an unyielding passion for revenge.

Suka.

Even the name sent adrenaline racing through his veins. He’d once been a wanted man—a bush-wise murderer who’d disappeared into the wilderness. Native legend said that in a drunken stupor Suka had stumbled too near the cursed valley, and the shaman had turned him into a monstrous bear. After his transformation, the old native had given the beast to the Ryan family, and in exchange they stalked the land, scouting for victims.

Suka had flown into a rage when Abe Ryan caged him, and only bars of steel could contain the furious beast. But even with ten-inch chains and iron bars, Abe Ryan couldn’t control the bruin. One dark afternoon Suka broke his chains, killed Abe, and slashed the bear totem from the man’s neck.

No longer a slave, and elated at finding his totem, Suka had waited for the transformation to begin, to live as a man once again. When it didn’t happen he went mad, killing all that came near him or dared to enter his domain. For there was one thing Suka didn’t understand, one thing Amarok had learned by listening to Abe explain to Weasel Tail. There were two totems carved of mammoth tusk for each transformed person—one hidden on the tainted soil of the cursed land, and one held by the Ryans. Both totems must be held to grant Suka—or any of the shaman’s other victims—freedom. Even with possessing the first totem, finding the second one might prove impossible as it would mean venturing into Milak’s forbidden land, risking disease and enslavement for anyone who tried.

Furious, Suka had retreated deep into the wilderness with his totem, not knowing about the second one that kept him in bear form. Wherever he traveled he slashed a symbol of four claws into the trees, marking his territory.

After a hundred years it was carved into the face of the earth across the vast wilderness, miles wide—a warning sign to those who entered his domain. For anyone who crossed Suka’s path died.

Now, more than a century later, his rage and hatred increased with each passing year. There was no one Suka hated more than the Ryan family for the evil pact they held with Milak, a treaty formed long ago. Amarok had overheard stories, whispered by natives who traded goods with Weasel Tail, claiming that Abe Ryan was an animal transformed into human form to do Milak’s bidding, and that all of Abe’s descendants still carried some sort of animal trait.

Amarok had also heard others warn Weasel Tail of Suka’s wrath, but he’d only laughed the stories off as tall tales. Young, stubborn, and dim-witted, he boasted of the day he’d kill the bear to avenge his great-grandfather. On more than one occasion he’d seen the bear lurking near the cabin, standing in the deadfall, shadow cast across the permafrost, waiting and watching for the right moment to attack. Amarok wanted more than anything for Suka to kill Weasel Tail, to watch the bear rip the cretin to pieces for all his cruelty. But now he dreaded a run-in with the great bear. Once Suka killed Weasel Tail, he’d be after the girl, and there would be little Amarok could do to protect her, even though he would die if need be to save her. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the horrible images flashing through his mind.

The wind howled around him and through the trees. Amarok jumped to his feet. His wolf heart pounded. A groan settled across the terrain, speaking to him of the thousand ways in which the girl could die in this lawless land. No matter the cost, he’d stay strong to protect her.

Amarok shook the frost from his fur, turned eastward, and tipped his face to the welcome blush of daybreak.

11

Emma staggered behind her captor, sleep tugging at her eyelids. They’d risen at dawn to continue their trek to God only knew where. It didn’t matter where they were headed.
Nothing
mattered anymore. She wanted out, and death held the door. Strange, how most people feared the end, and she welcomed it so openly. Emma wouldn’t allow fear to control her, because there was one thing she had learned about it—fear didn’t last long. It couldn’t. It took too much energy to sustain. Just like all the times Stan burst into her room, violating her space in a drunken fury, mad about a dish left on the kitchen table or hair in the bathroom sink—any excuse to beat her, terrorize her.

The first few times he’d slapped her, she screamed until her throat was raw and her eyes red and swollen. But after those first blows, she’d gotten used to it, grown numb, and now he couldn’t scare her anymore. She got power from silence. No matter what Stan did to her, he couldn’t make her cry, couldn’t make her beg, and he couldn’t make her say she was sorry, not even when he beat her with his belt. Emma kept her focus on the muddy ground, occasionally glancing at Amarok to make sure he still walked by her side. At least he would be with her—at the end. She willed herself to think of nothing but the next step, and the next, until they arrived at whatever destination the creep had in mind.

They hiked through a mile of deadfall and into a shaded forest floor of clinging muck and slushy snow. The brisk morning air carried a heavy fragrance of wet pine and musky earth. Emma swallowed the dry lump in her throat. She’d kill for a caramel latte with whipped cream and sprinkles. She sighed, thinking of how many times she’d passed on getting one, obsessed with calories. Now she’d drink one after another, or anything else, for that matter. For the last mile, thirst had plagued her, leaving her throat scratchy and raw.

Emma tried to focus on her stride, but no matter how she struggled to forget, unwanted thoughts kept trickling in, the way hurtful memories did when she least expected or wanted them. Some small, stupid thing—a color, a smell, or even a word—would trigger a stampede of overwhelming thoughts.

She didn’t want to know what might lie ahead. Death certainly didn’t bother her. There were things much worse than dying, and she shuddered to think of them. She yearned to give up, to press her body against the earth, to dissolve into this untamed land that belonged to no one, to melt into the luminous void that stretched between earth and sky. But she couldn’t lie down to rest, because this asshole had taken the only thing she’d had left—her freedom. First chance she got, she’d make him pay.

Emma stared daggers into the man’s back. She could only imagine how terrible his cabin must be. If he touched her, forced her somehow, she’d find a way to kill him, then herself. She smiled. Maybe she’d blow the place up and make a big, grand exit. Her heart fell and she paused, staring at her companion. If something happened to her, then what would happen to Amarok? He trotted to her side, faithful as ever, staring up at her with those liquid pools of undying sorrow.

“Sure wish you could speak,” she said. “Or understand what I’m telling you. Maybe you wouldn’t like me so much if you knew that I killed my own mother. Would you still like me then, Amarok?”

He wagged his tail as if in answer and she patted his broad head.

“It’s all my fault,” she whispered, her throat hoarse. She knelt down in front of him, and the dam broke. Hot tears streamed down her face. “I went into my bedroom that night and I waited until everyone was asleep.” Amarok tilted his head and rested on his haunches, his eyes finding hers. Emma shook her head. Why was she telling him all this? Maybe it was knowing she was nearing the end of her life, and she no longer wished to carry the burden to her grave. “I snuck out my bedroom window and hitched a ride into town with friends. We got wasted drunk. Mom woke up at midnight, found out I was missing, and went looking for me. The roads were sheets of ice. Emergency travel only.” More tears flowed. “She ran off the highway and plunged into the river… and drowned. All because of me. If only I’d stayed home that night, she wouldn’t be dead. She’d still be alive—if it weren’t for me.”

Amarok licked her face, making Emma jump. She smiled sadly and wiped the saliva off with the back of her hand. “So, you do still like me. Don’t you?” She hugged his neck. “At least I still have you.”

BOOK: Amarok
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