Frostbite-Chapter 5

Chey staggered through the trees, drawn by the smell of cooking. It was over—her nightmare of being lost in the woods was over. Finally she would see another human being, someone who could help her. Animals didn’t cook their food. Wolves especially didn’t cook their food. Her ankle hurt like hell and a bright light went off behind her eyes every time she stepped on that foot, but she didn’t much care. There was someone nearby, somebody human. Someone who could help her, someone who could save her.

Her bad foot got her to the edge of a clearing and then gave up, spilling her across moss and snow. She raised herself up on her arms and looked around.

The clearing was no more than ten meters across, a raised bit of earth that ran down toward a thin stream meandering through the trees. A campfire had been built at its high point and a black iron skillet sat smoking in the coals, strips of what looked like back bacon glistening inside. It was enough to make her mouth water.

By the fire sat a man wearing a fur coat. No, that was giving the garment too much credit. It looked like a pile of ragged furs, brown and gray like the colors of the forest. The man himself was short, maybe shorter than Chey, though it was hard to tell when he was sitting down. He had his back to her and he was bent over the skillet, meticulously adjusting its contents.

“Hello,” she croaked, and brushed dead leaves off her face.

There was no reaction. She realized her voice was so weak it might be mistaken for the creaking of the branches overhead. Chey pushed herself up higher and cleared her throat, then dredged up the strength to say, “Hey! You! Over here!”

The man turned and Chey let out a strangled yelp. At first his face seemed featureless and raw. Then she realized he was wearing a mask. It was painted white and it had narrow flat slots where his eyes and his mouth must be. Stripes of brown paint led upward from the eye slots.

The man reached up and pushed the mask up, onto the top of his head. Beneath it his face was wide and round and very surprised. He’d probably never expected to see another human in these woods—much less a bedraggled, wounded woman pulling herself along the ground by her arms. He rose from where he’d been sitting by the stream and came toward her, his furs swinging as he walked.

“Dzo,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Chey told him, shaking her head. “I don’t speak Inuit.”

“Neither do I,” he said, in English. “The nearest Eskimo is in Nuna vut, the next territory over. The people around here are Sahtu Dene nation. That’s if you want to get particular, which I normally don’t, and if there were any of them actually around here, as in, within a hundred kilometers, which there aren’t. Dzo.”

“Dzo,” she repeated, thinking it must be a traditional greeting.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

Chey squinted in frustration. Dzo must be his name, then. It sounded a little like “Joe” but just different enough to be hard for her to pronounce.

“I’m Chey,” she said. “It’s short for Cheyenne.”

He smiled for a moment, then gave her a friendly nod. Then, without offering her a hand up, he went back to his fire and sat down. He lay food carefully in the skillet, not even looking at her.

Chey tried to think of something to say that would express her indignation but without offending him to the point where he wouldn’t help her. When she failed to think of anything appropriate, she painfully rose to her feet and limped over to where he sat. She waited a while longer to be invited. When he said nothing more, she gave up and sat down on a rotten log next to his fire. The warmth it gave off was almost painful as it thawed out her frozen joints, but welcome all the same.

For a while she just sat there, hugging her knees, glad not to be walking anymore. Dzo didn’t seem to mind her presence, but he didn’t offer her food or ask if she was okay, either. Chey was cold and starving and as near death as she’d ever been, but even in her diminished state she could wonder at what was wrong with this guy. Didn’t he see how badly she needed help?

“Wolves,” she said. “They nearly got me. One kind of did. There was this pack of wolves—they followed me—”

“Wolves?” he asked. “You were attacked by wolves?” He sounded as if he was asking if she’d seen any interesting wildflowers on her way to his camp.

“Yeah. A whole pack of them,” she said. “And then, this one, this big one—”

“No worries there,” he told her. “A wolf will never attack a human being. Even out here, where they’ve never seen a human before, it just doesn’t happen. You just don’t look like their food. Most likely they were just curious, or they were trying to play with you. That’s all.”

Her leg was proof of the opposite, she thought. But then again, it hadn’t been a normal wolf that had gotten her. She thought about trying to explain what had happened, but she wasn’t sure he would believe her. “I know what I saw!”

It was the best defense she could think of. It didn’t seem to make much of an impression on him.

“I don’t,” he said. “I wasn’t there.”

She closed her eyes and tried to summon up some kind of calm rationality, some piece of perfect logic that would break through his sur¬real refusal to understand what was going on. “Look,” she said, and then didn’t know how to proceed. “It doesn’t—it doesn’t matter what I saw. I’m still lost,” she said, finally.

“You’d kind of have to be,” he told her. “Otherwise why would you be out here?”

She nodded, uncertain of what he meant. “I’m in trouble,” she added. “I’m hurt.”

Dzo looked up as if he’d just realized she was talking to him. His eyes went wide and he studied her ankle for a second. She held it up for him, let the light from the fire glisten on the dried blood that coated her pant leg. “Oh, boy,” he said, finally. “Now you’ll forgive me, I hope. I don’t meet many new folks up here. My whatchamacallems—my social skills—are a little rusty, yeah?” He rested one fur- gloved hand on her shoulders and she almost sank into the touch, she was so glad for a little human contact after so long alone in the trees. The hand lifted away immediately, though, and then patted her shoulder two or three times. “There, there,” he said, and looked away from her again.

Was he mentally handicapped, she wondered, or just unbalanced from being alone in the woods for so long? Her immediate survival depended on this man. She was pretty close to despair. Struggling with her emotions, she dragged up the story, the one she’d practiced so many times she half believed it herself. She used recent real events to flesh out the bare- bones details. “I was heli- hiking out of Rae Lakes. It was a ‘North of 60’ adventure package, right? They take you up north, about as close to the Arctic Circle as you want to get, so you can see the real wilderness, the primeval forest and stuff. Drop you in the woods with some supplies, give you a map, and tell you where they’ll come pick you up. And then when we were done they were supposed to fly us to Yellowknife for a spa day before we had to head back to civilization. For the first couple of days of hiking it was okay, I guess. I mean, I was having fun even if it was way too cold. Then out of nowhere it went to utter hell. I got separated from the rest of the group. I got lost.”

She closed her eyes. Clutched herself a little harder. Went on.

“I was climbing up this valley and then there was just all this water. I was carried away and my pack was—anyway, I washed up a little way downstream with no gear and no way to contact the helicopter to come pick me up. I knew they would send helicopters to look for me, but this part of the world is just too big and too empty. They were never going to find me. If I wanted to live I had to walk out of there.”

Dzo nodded, but he was watching his frying pan.

“I had to find other people, people who could get me back to safety. I had lost my good map in the river, but I still had a brochure from the heli- hiking place with a sort of map on it. It said if I walked due north I would eventually come to a place called Echo Bay.”

That got his attention, though not necessarily in the way she’d hoped. Dzo let out a booming laugh. “Echo Bay? Why’d you want to go there, of all places?”

“It was the only town on the map,” she insisted. “Here, look,” she said, and pulled the crumpled, water- stained brochure out of her pocket. She smoothed it out on her thigh and showed him—the map included the roads around Yellowknife, and Echo Bay and the enormous lake beyond it, and a whole bunch of white space in between. She’d been in the white space for days now. “It’s on the shore of Great Bear Lake, on the eastern shore—”

He held up a hand to stop her. “I know where it is, and I know your orienteering skills are crap, lady. You overshot your mark by a couple hundred klicks.”

“What are you talking about? It was due north of my position.” She grabbed the compass on her zipper pull and waved it at him. “They told us as much when they dropped us off, if we walked far enough due north we would get there. I followed this every step of the way.”

“You were following that?” He started giggling. At her. “That thing points at magnetic north,” he told her. “You wanted true north.”

She could only stare at him as if she had no idea what he was talking about.

He sighed and held up his hands as if to say, what can you do with these southerners? “Magnetic north, that’s centered on the pole of the planet’s magnetic field, okay? That’s where your compass is pointing, where it’s always going to point. But the magnetic field doesn’t line up perfect with the actual axis of the earth, the imaginary line that it rotates around. The magnetic field pole and the axis are a couple hundred kilometers away from each other. So the compass doesn’t point north at all, really. Maybe down south where you come from nobody’s ever heard of the difference, but up this far you always have to compensate when you’re using a compass. You know that if the compass says north, you actually want to head a little bit to the west, right?”

“Okay,” Chey said, not really following.

He shook his head and turned to look at his skillet again. With his bare fingers he flipped its contents over so they cooked evenly. “You keep following that compass and you’ll end up in Nunavut. Which, believe it or not, is even emptier than this place. Wow, lady, it’s kind of a miracle you survived this long. Considering how stupid you’ve got to be.”

He winced when her face darkened in anger.

“Hey, hey now, I’m sorry, like I said, I’m no good with people,” he told her. “Lucky for us both, I’m better with a compass.” He laughed again and pulled a strip of something pale and greasy out of his skillet. “Here, eat this,” he said, nearly dropping it in her lap. “I’m sure you didn’t bring enough food, either.”

“Thanks,” she snarled, but she bit into it. It wasn’t meat, whatever it was—it had barely any taste at all. “What is this?” she demanded, even as she took another bite.

“It’s the inner bark of the lodgepole pine tree,” he informed her. “Totally edible, I promise. Just about the only thing you can eat in this forsaken wilderness.”

She’d been looking forward to back bacon, but she supposed she couldn’t complain. Well, maybe a little. “You couldn’t hunt for game?” she asked, as she chewed vigorously on the stringy vegetable matter.

He pulled his furs closer around himself, then smiled very wide when he said, “I’m a vegetarian.”

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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