Frostbite-Chapter 2

In the morning she was itchy and damp and her skin felt like it had been scoured with a wire brush, but she knew that the second she tried to move out of her pile of needles, the real torment would begin.

She was right. When Chey did finally move her arms and legs and sit up, every muscle in her body felt like it had hardened into stone overnight and now was cracking. The stiffness hurt, really hurt, and she realized how rare it was to feel true pain when you lived in a civilized place. You might stub your toe on your coffee table, or even jam your finger in a car door. But you never felt a river pick you up and bang you against a bunch of jagged rocks until it got bored with you.

She sat curled around her knees for a while, just breathing.

Eventually she managed to get up on her feet. She had to make a decision. North, or south. South meant giving up. Turning her back on what she’d come for.

She checked her compass and headed north.

After an hour of walking the stiffness started to go away. It was replaced by searing pain that came with every step she took in her waterlogged boots, but that she could wince away.

She kept walking, through the trees, until she thought she might collapse from exhaustion.The sun was still high above the green and yellow branches, but she couldn’t take another step. So she sat down.

She thought about crying for a while, but decided she didn’t have the energy left. So instead she unwrapped one of her protein bars and ate it. When she was done she got back up and started walking again, because there was nothing else to do. Nothing that would help her.

Time didn’t mean much among the trees, because everything looked the same and every step she took seemed exactly like the one before it. But eventually it got dark.

She kept walking.

Until she thought she heard something. A footfall on a crust of snow, maybe. Or just the sound of something breathing. Something that wasn’t human.

Keep walking, she told herself. It’s more afraid of you than—

She couldn’t bring herself to finish that thought without laughing out loud. Which she really didn’t want to do.

She came to a gap in the cover of branches overhead and a little moonlight leaked through, enough that she could look around her. The sky was alive with colors: the aurora borealis burning and raging overhead. She forced herself not to watch it, though—she needed to scan the shadows around her, searching for any sign of pursuit.

She peered and squinted so hard into the gloom that she almost fell, her hands wheeling out in front of her to catch herself, and then she decided she needed to keep an eye on her footing. Buckled by permafrost, the ground refused to lie flat. Instead it bunched up in wrinkles that could snag her ankle if she wasn’t careful. The black trees stood up in random directions, at angles to the earth. The ground rose in sharp hillocks and sudden crevasses that hid glinting ice. Chey’s feet kept catching on exposed roots and broken rocks. She could barely trust her perceptions anyway, not after what she’d been through, with nothing to eat but energy bars, no real sleep, no shelter except the fleece lining of her torn parka.

There was nothing out there, she told herself. It had just been her half- starved brain playing tricks on her. The forest was empty of life. She hadn’t seen so much as a bird or a chipmunk all day. She stopped in her tracks and turned around to look behind her, just to prove to herself she wasn’t being followed.

Between two of the trees a pair of yellow eyes flickered into glowing life, blazing like the reflectors of a pair of flashlights. They caught the fish- belly white moonlight and speared her with it. Froze her in place. Slowly, languorously, the eyes closed again and were gone, like embers flickering out at the bottom of a dead campfire.

“Oh, shit,” she breathed, and then slammed a hand over her mouth. Underneath the parka she could feel the hair on the back of her arms standing up. Slowly she turned around in a circle. Wolf. That had been a wolf, a timber wolf. She was certain. Were there more of them? Was there a pack nearby?

She heard them howl then. She’d heard dogs howl at the moon be¬fore, but not like this. The howling went on and on and on, with new voices jumping in and following, a sound almost mournful in tone. They were talking among themselves and she figured they were telling each other where to find her.

She lacked the energy to go another step. Her face contracted in a grimace of real terror. Then she dug deeper inside of herself, deeper than she’d ever been before, and she ran.

The trees flashed by her, leaning to the left, the right. The gnarled ground tore at her feet, made her ankles ache and burn. She kept her arms up in front of her—despite the half- full moon she could barely see anything, and could easily collide face first with a tree trunk and snap her neck. She knew it was foolish, knew that running was the worst thing she could do. But it was the only thing she could do.

To her left she saw flickering gold. The eyes again. Was it the same animal? She couldn’t tell. The eyes floated alongside her, easily keeping up with her pace. The eyes weren’t expending any effort at all. The feet that belonged to those eyes knew this rough land by instinct, could find the perfect footing without even looking. The Northwest Territories belonged to those eyes, those feet. Not to human weakness.

To her right she heard panting. More than one of them over there, too. It was a pack, a whole pack, and they were testing her. Seeing how fast she could run, how strong she was.

She was going to die here, as far from civilization as anyone could ever be. She was going to die.

No. Not quite yet.

Evolution had given her certain advantages. It had given her hands. Her distant ancestors had used those hands to climb, to escape from predators. She needed to unlearn two million years of civilization in a hurry. Ahead of her a tree stood up from the leaning forest, a big half- dead paper birch with thick limbs starting two meters off the ground. It rose five meters taller than anything around it. She steeled herself, clenched and unclenched her hands a few times, then dashed right at it, her aching feet catching on the loose bark that pulled away like sloughing skin. Her hands reached up and grabbed at thin branches that couldn’t possibly hold her weight, twigs really. She shoved herself up the tree, her body, her face pressed as tightly to the trunk as she could get them, until a wave of ripped bark and crystalline snow came boiling across her face. Suddenly she was holding on to a thick branch three meters above the earth. She pulled herself up onto it, grabbed it with her whole body. Looked down.

Six adult wolves stood staring back up at her. Their golden eyes were placid and content. She could almost see laughter there. Their long sleek bodies gleamed in the half- light. They had their tails up and wagging.

“Go away,” she pleaded, but their leader, a big animal with a shaggy face, leaned backward, stretching out his forelimbs, and sank to lie down on the carpet of musty pine needles and old brown leaves. He wasn’t going anywhere.

One of the others, slightly smaller—a female, maybe?—raked at the birch tree with its claws. The wolf ’s tongue hung out of its mouth as it reached higher and higher. It opened its mouth wide as if yawning and let out a devilish screech that elongated into a full- blown howl. The others added their voices until Chey vibrated on her perch, feeling as if they could shake her out of her refuge with nothing more than their yowling.

Were they—laughing at her? Mocking her distress? Or maybe they were just singing to pass the time. Waiting for dinner to fall out of the tree.

“Go away!” she screamed, but her voice was small inside the orches¬tra of their howls and yelps. She shouted and screamed but couldn’t match their sound. She wanted to press her hands against her ears, to block it out, but then—

—the wolf calls stopped. All at once. In the silence that followed she could hear flakes of snow dropping to the forest floor from the branches over her head.

Then—from deep in the forest, another call came. Slightly different. It held the hint of a growl. A challenge. Instantly the wolves were up and looking from side to side. Their tails went down and they glanced at each other as if to ask if they had all heard it.

The new call came again. It was unlike the sad moaning of the wolves. It was more wicked, more chilling. It was hateful.

The wolves beneath Chey’s branch scattered, disappearing into the darkness as silently as they’d come. The new cry came a third time then, but from much, much closer by.

Check out the previous chapters of Frostbite right here.

Excerpted from Frostbite: A Werewolf Tale by David Wellington. Copyright © 2009 by David Wellington. Published in the Unites States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Published in the UK as Cursed by Piatkus Books, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.

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