She could not feel her fingers. The bitter cold ripped through the poorly woven gloves and to her bones, she could feel nothing. Far off, she heard an owl call out in the quiet noise of the forest. Searching, her blood-shot eyes bounced off the starry brilliance of the constellations, not noticing the brightness of the moon or the eerie stillness of the sky. She kept her breath shallow, steady, but inaudible; again her eyes danced across the sky, across the landscape, still searching.
Imogene curled into herself slowly, millimeters at a time. Beneath her layers of two ratty t-shirts, a frayed sweater, and a torn down jacket, she moved her bitterly frozen hands to rest in the hollows of her armpit. Her bone-thin legs were covered in layers cheap, patched jeans and worn long-johns. Wool socks and hand-me-down hiking boots kept her feet warm enough – the most generous gifts she’d ever been given. All that she had ever owned, she carried.
Her back to a gnarled old tree, she sat still, knees to chest and watched as the night passed. As her eyes closed, her shoulders released and the weight she carried was lifted momentarily. She relaxed, resting in the eerie stillness. Moments passed before she snapped awake; hyper aware of the leaves crunching underfoot and of the skittering of tiny forest creatures. Ears flattened against her skull, she strained to hear what creature was approaching. She counted to ten, her heartbeat slowed, the world slowed as she focused on her intruder.
Whatever the creature was, it did not weigh much. Padded footsteps only broke the surface layer of the forest floor. She counted the cadence of the step, four feet, two at a time in unison. For what she could tell, the creature was twenty steps from her old, twisted tree. Twenty steps to decide. Plan A, kill it. It would not take much effort, she reasoned. The hide could provide more protection from the elements and she would have food again. Sixteen steps. Plan B. Hide. Wait for it to pass, will it to not see her. Twelve steps.
Four steps from her, it stopped cold. It felt the presence of another, but was unsure if friend or foe. Imogene paused, briefly undecided, and then leapt into action. Four small, quick movements and she secured her place on the back of the creature, with her thin arms wrapped tightly around its furred collar. Her legs pressed into its ribs and she squeezed, locking her ankles together as it shuddered and fell to the ground. Imogene could feel the long, deep draws of the slumbering animal beneath her. The warmth of the animal permeated to her chilled bones.
Too long, she warned herself, Stop hesitating. Decide. She uncurled her legs from round the animal and ever so slowly, pushed the sleeping beast leftwards, freeing her leg from beneath it. The coarse, white fur was matted to a thin, but muscular body. It was awkward, as if experiencing a growth spurt; lanky legs and a body too small for its head. Erect and pointed ears, a long snout, and eyes rimmed with black; the wolf resembled a bandit.
She watched it come to slowly, every muscle in her body tensed, preparing for a fight. He rose onto his haunches and leveled his gaze at Imogene’s throat as she stood, rod straight and tall over the wolf, encompassing the air and space between them, asserting her dominance. She stared silently into his obsidian eyes, daring him to make a move. The hair on his back rose, his head ducked, and the tension in his muscles was palpable. Quietly but firmly, Imogene exhaled, “Calmate,” as she stepped forward to place her palm upon his head. Like magic, he eased and the energy between them became tranquil and serene.
Imogene dropped to her knees beside him, deftly stroking his body, feeling for injury or pests. She felt the tension and struggle leave her body momentarily, relaxing in the moment, breathing in the cold, winter air and acquainting herself with her new companion. Salvador, she called him.
Her experience taught her wolves were intelligent, able creatures and because of that, she expected training to be easy. But after a hard day in which not much was accomplished, she was overcome with the frustration and magnitude of the project she had naively undertaken. He tugged at her sleeve and nuzzled her palm but, with a glare, she shrugged him off and continued to wallow near the tree where she had first taken him down. She could not understand where she was going wrong in training Salvador, why he didn’t understand stalking and stealth. She wracked her mind, and while she was lost in her thoughts, he wandered off toward the edge of the western fields.
It was spring now, the frost had melted and the trees were beginning to sprout newly greened leaves. Minutes passed, nearly an hour, before she realized he was gone. Panic clutched at her chest, her eyes were wide with worry. A yelp in the distance ripped the world from beneath her.
She moved quickly, unconcerned with the branches scratching at her face. The fullness of the trees did not slow her as she compelled herself forward, frantically searching for Salvador, aware and not unaware of her surroundings. Her heart was beating an erratic pace against her chest, her eyes wide and unblinking. She breached the edge of the wood and stood breathless.
Streaks of yellow, orange, purple and pink painted the sky; the sun in her descent was a blood red and a chill was beginning to permeate the air. Imogene could not register anything but her beloved wolf lying prone in the distance. His white fur had grown full and thick in the months since he found her, his body had filled out and was no longer lanky and awkward. As if seeing him for the first time, she noticed the definition of his muscles now, how he had grown and was no longer a lost pup.
The panic in her chest had not abated; she dropped to her knees and crept slowly towards Salvador. The grass in her palms felt like tiny shards of glass, the ground on her joints was like crawling over hot coals. She never noticed the hot tears spilling from her eyes. She never noticed her shallow, labored breathing or the tiny, hysteric whimpers escaping her throat. Once her ice-blue eyes locked on to him, they never wavered.
The outside world no longer existed. The blood rushed in her ears, drowning out the sounds of the forest, her nostrils filled with his woodsy scent. Shaking fingers stroked soft white fur, red-rimmed eyes searched his body for wounds, for breathing but failed to see either; Imogene was there but not, so far lost in her fear that she could not see nor hear the hunters approaching, nor did she care how exposed she was, lying on her belly, panting hysterically, willing her precious Salvador to be alive, to be his raucous, playful self. She was in the open now, more vulnerable than she had ever been of all the time she had spent in the forest.
The hunters were two brawny, weather-beaten beasts of men with wild eyes hidden behind masses of hair and beard. Their bodies emanated strength, power, and dominance. From across the western field, they could see the girl and the wolf; her pitiful whimpers sang out to them like a homing beacon. The animal was only stunned, struck by a miniscule sleeping dart from Elowyn’s shooter.
A more skillful hunter had never lived before in their tribe; Elowyn was strong, sure, and menacing. His influence over the younger hunters had always been prominent, each young male sought Elowyn’s guidance, but his arrogance had deemed them all unfit; too stupid, too weak, too clumsy. He wasted precious time on no one, trusted no one, save for Kirik and even that had its limits. The bond shared between the two brothers was only by necessity. The tribe shaman, Kirik had on more than one occasion saved Elowyn’s life. Elowyn often killed enough game to feed the tribe throughout winter, for which the tribe was grateful and thusly bore his drunken tirades and ill manner.
Swiftly, Elowyn and Kirik descended upon Imogene. Kirik’s arms wrapped around her middle and hoisted her from the ground, away from Salvador. Aware that something had her, but not sure what, she thrashed about, kicking and screaming, scratching, writhing in any attempt to be loosed again. But Kirik held fast, tightening his grip around her waist until she could no longer breathe. Her body went limp and he slung her lazily over his shoulder.
Elowyn examined Salvador carefully. Not quite full grown, but of a decent training age, Elowyn concluded that the animal would be trained to hunt for him. It was not uncommon for hunters in the tribe to take an animal familiar, but this would be Elowyn’s first. He tied the animal’s front and hind legs to each other and shouldered him about his neck.
The two men began the ascent to the tribe grounds. It was a long trek, from the base of the mountain to the plateau on which they tribe had made its make-shift temporary home was a day’s journey, through the dense woods and up along the ridge to the flattened earth that the Yuki had claimed as their own for a moon cycle. A familiar silence held the air between the men.
Kirik wondered about the girl. Her garb was strange, like nothing he’d ever seen before. Something glimmered in the setting sunlight and he saw she wore a pendant around her neck. The thread on which it hung was a bright yellow color made of several small links; the pendant itself was black and white and seemed to be a small human with wings. He examined the lines of her face – she was not Yuki, not Harwa, not of any tribe he’d ever known. Her pale skin and fire-red hair were alien to him.
Imogene began to stir slightly, coming out from her unconscious state. Her eyes fluttered open slowly, unsure of her surroundings, her captors or what lie ahead, but if experience taught her anything, it was to remain still and observant. She maintained her breath, slow and even. The sun had set some time ago and the stars were beginning to twinkle above the treetops. The men slowed their pace to a stop, and began speaking in a language unfamiliar to Imogene.
The smaller of the two set her down off his shoulders, carefully ensuring that his knots were secure and that she could not escape. He began to set a fire, building a small camp for the evening while the other wandered off for a short while, returning with three freshly-killed rabbits. She watched as he skinned the rabbits and prepared them for the fire. As she watched him, his dark, coal-black eyes met hers, taunting her.
A hot, slow, roiling anger began to rise in her core, like a serpent uncoiling itself, winding up and around her spine, weaving through her vessels and veins, burning her from the inside.
Outwardly, Imogene did not react. She became acutely aware of the scene; the woods they inhabited were thick and dark. Tree limbs hung low, some were broken into the earth. Around the fire that Kirik had built was a curious arrangement of moss-covered stones, encircling a deep crater that showed signs that a great, old tree had once grown in that space. The fire crackled in it now, and Kirik began to roast the rabbits.
A small smirk played in the corner of her mouth as she watched Elowyn’s tension rise under her reproachful stare. He was baiting her, but failing. Springing across the fire, he wrenched Imogene up by her ragged shirt. The fabric strained under his grip, her toes dangled above the earth as he lifted her. The fire in her eyes did not abate, nor did the disdain, the fearlessness, the dare for him to do his worst. He spat in some foul language, words she could not begin to understand, guttural and animalistic. Her pendant dangled in front of his face. His attention on it gave her the opportunity she was waiting for.
In a flurry of motion, she swung her legs up and around his neck, breaking it swiftly. As his lifeless body fell, she landed deftly, gaze turned to Kirik. He took two steps back, wary and alert. His small blade was drawn; she was acutely aware that the damage it could inflict would be minimal. She assessed him quickly- lithe, strong, but not aggressive. He may be worth keeping alive. She motioned to him to release her, and he gave her a quick, quizzical look. Again, she motioned and upon understanding, he crept closer, tentative and unsure. She had proven she did not need her hands to kill. She was faster than he, and if she chose to end his life, she would do so regardless of her release. He quickly sliced the knots and moved quickly away.
Imogene moved to Salvador, his body was still warm, his breathing regular. Her fingers touched the pendant and it glowed softly. The glow grew brighter and slithered from the pendant to her fingers, down her arm, and into Salvador. His eyes snapped open and he was on his paws again, body hunched and prepared to attack. He gnashed his teeth at Imogene and sprang, flinging her onto her back. Her hand went to his throat, and she muttered soft words as she squeezed his jugular. He snapped again, his breath hot on her face. The playful pup was gone and his place was an untamable hunter. With a low growl, he relaxed and slunk into the woods.
Imogene shot Kirik a hateful glance, full of fury and brimming with pain. She wrenched a rabbit from the pit and tore into it, staring into the abyss that swallowed her beloved wolf.