I ran through the forest, stumbling over gnarled roots that seemed determined to drag me down. My lungs burned but I didn't dare stop for breath. Nothing but adrenaline and terror kept me moving now.
That, and the jaws of the wolves snapping at my ankles, driven to bloodlust by the thrill of the chase. Tree branches whipped at my face leaving angry red welts on my flushed cheeks and forehead, and my hood was torn from my head. I hardly noticed. There would be time to feel pain after I escaped from these infernal wolves.
If I escaped.
I heard them snarling and snapping at one another behind me, each eager for the first bite. I could imagine how they must look: yellow eyes flashing in the darkness, their mouths open and panting in salivating anticipation. I had seen the first wolf become two, and then three before I began to run. Now it sounded as though there was an entire pack tearing through the trees after me.
I couldn't outrun them for much longer. The only reason I was even still alive was because the dense forest undergrowth made it easier for a lone, slim girl to slip through the gaps in the trees than it was for a pack of overgrown, half starved mutts; clumsy in their desperation, and all jostling violently for position at the front of the pack. If they hadn't kept stopping to fight with each other, I'd have been lunch a long time ago, and I knew my luck had already lasted far longer than I was due.
The crimson cloak billowed out behind me, and without warning it snagged on a branch, jerking me painfully backwards as my desperate flight was brought to an abrupt end. I spun around and tore in panic at the red fabric, pulling once... twice... three times before finally succeeding in tearing it loose—but it had cost me my precious few seconds of a head start. I looked up with terrified eyes into the shadows of the forest, and saw the wolves bearing down upon me like hounds from hell. There was no point in running any longer, I knew I wouldn't be able to outpace them now.
So instead, willing my shaking legs not to give out on me just yet, I summoned what little strength I had left and leapt straight up into the air as high as I could. My fingers brushed the branch above my head.
“Come on!” I grunted, jumping again. Again, it remained just out of my reach. “I won't—” I jumped.
The wolves were twenty feet away now.
“—Go out—” I missed.
They were ten feet away, and I could see their glistening teeth, barred and wet with drool.
“—As dog food!” I was so close this time, if only I could have been an inch, a centimeter taller! I tried, one last time, and just as the closest of the wolves leapt into the air, my fingers closed around the branch and I hauled myself up into the tree. A moment later, the creature's mouth snapped closed futilely at the space where my legs had just been dangling.
Seven wolves surrounded the base of the tree, snapping at the air with their foaming lips pulled back over black gums. But it was too late, I was out of their reach.
“Ha!” I crowed triumphantly. “What now, you stupid, mangy, flea-ridden mutts?!”
As if in response to my gloating, the largest of the wolves—massive, with coarse, patchy fur—narrowed his eyes at me and crouched low to the ground, his bony ribcage almost touching the forest floor. He laid his ears flat, tensed his haunches, and launched himself higher into the air than I would have thought possible.
I shrieked and tried to scramble higher, but I wasn't his target.
The wolf threw himself at the trunk of the tree, and to both my horror and amazement, he clung there like a squirrel for a heart-stopping moment, before slowly but with awful determination beginning to inch his way up the trunk, in a way that no earthly canine should have been able to.
Well. Time to revise my plan.
I began to climb higher, increasing the distance between me and the wolf, but not enough to let me breathe a sigh of relief just yet. Even as he reached the branch I had moments before taken refuge on, the ascent became easier for him, as now he had the help of the sturdy limbs of the evergreen to act as a ladder, leading straight up to the trailing hem of my stolen cloak.
How the hell was a wolf climbing a tree? I spared a fraction of a moment to glance down at it. Perhaps, from certain angles, there was something not entirely wolfish about its features. Something about its bright eyes, which were fixed on me with unsettling intensity, with unsettling intelligence.
We climbed in unison, inch by agonizing inch. The higher I climbed, the thinner the branches of the tree became, and they groaned under my weight. I tried to ignore this, hoping that what could barely support me would eventually send the huge wolf tumbling back to the ground. It didn't seem to be paying any heed to the danger though, and it continued its relentless rise without once taking its starving eyes off me.
I reached upwards to grab a branch—though by this point the word “branch” was somewhat misleading, “twig” was more accurate—only to have it break off in my hand the moment I put my weight on it. Case and point.
I clutched desperately at the tree trunk, my heart pounding. My near fall forced me to glance below my dangling feet, and the sheer drop off made my already woozy head spin like a top. Worse still, the wolf was gaining. He picked up his pace, scrambling with massive paws to clumsily drag himself from branch to branch. If he didn't fall soon, he would be upon me. I looked up at the remaining branches above my head, and knew that venturing any farther up would only result in a very sudden, very unpleasant meeting with with ground. And several dozen tree limbs and a hungry wolf on the way, of course.
Okay, so much for Plan B.
The wolf was ten feet below me now, and rising. A tree limb snapped under one of his paws, but he drew himself up onto the next one just in time, to my dismay. He'd be upon me in moments if I didn't act. Frantically I looked around, desperately hoping to see something, anything, that could help me.
Nothing turned up.
Except for one stupid, dangerous idea. But if my choices were between being stupid and being dead, I'd take my chances.
I took a deep breath, stood up unsteadily on the branch I was clinging to, and without giving myself time to actually think about what I was about to do, threw myself out of the tree.
I fell through the air, screaming every moment of the way. With a painful jolt, I crashed into the nearest branches of the tree beside the one I had just jumped from. I tried to grab hold of the branches, or the trunk, or anything that might stop my fall, but it all only broke off in my grasp. True, I didn't have a blood thirsty wolf to worry about anymore—at least not at that exact second—but that fact didn't really make falling some fifty feet to my death any more comforting.
Thankfully, it was quick. Somehow managing to miss the larger branches that would have brained me in an instant, I hurtled to the earth, the red riding cape billowing about me like engulfing flames, until I crashed—
—Right through someone's roof.
I stared up hazily at the hole I had made in the ceiling. I could see the dark foliage high above, only a few slanting rays of light penetrating the treetops. I knew I should probably get up and apologize to whoever lived in this house, but to be honest, I didn't really feel up to moving at this point. So instead I laid there on my back and vaguely wondered when I would be able to breath again.
A face appeared in my line of vision.
It was blurry and kept moving, so it was hard to get a good look at it, but I thought it might have had sandy blonde hair. After a few moments, I realized it was speaking, though the ringing in my ears prevented me from hearing clearly what it was trying to say.
I tried to tell the face that I couldn't hear it, but when I opened my mouth, only a rattling wheeze came out. Through the aching pain that fogged my mind, I thought I could feel pressure being placed seemingly at random over my body. After a few bemused moments, I realize that the face had hands, and those hands were pressing gently on my arms, legs, and chest; evidently trying to determine how bad the damage was.
Despite the pain I was in, I wanted to tell the face that I didn't think anything was broken, but I still couldn't quite get enough air to manage anything more than a groan. The face said something again. I shook my head slightly, screwing my eyes shut for a long moment. When I opened them again, I found that the double vision was receding, as was the ringing in my ears. I groaned again, and because I was so pleased that I could hear it properly, I groaned a third time. I tried to sit up, only to fall back down in an aching heap.
“Hey, don't try to move yet!” a voice I assumed belonged to the face snapped. “Are you stupid? Stay there, stop squirming!” It was a male voice.
“I'm not squirming,” I finally managed to wheeze, after several attempts.
“Don't argue with me,” the man snapped. “It's my floor, I should know whether or not you're squirming on it. Why did you fall through my ceiling?”
“I didn't do it on purpose,” I replied as testily as I could, considering that every breath still felt like someone was stabbing me in my lungs. “I fell.”
“Obviously,” he shot back shortly. “But why?”
“Wolves,” I answered, trying again to struggle into a sitting position. The owner of the voice and face put a hand out to stop me, but I shrugged him off and pushed myself up onto my elbows. The small effort of sitting up sent my head spinning in all new directions.
“Wolves. Chasing me. Up a tree.”
“Wolves,” he growled, and he rose to his feet. “Are they still out there?”
“I don't know,” I said. “I think so. My head hurts. One of them is in a tree.”
The man didn't reply. Instead he moved across the room, only to return in a moment with something large clutched in his hand. I tried to get a good look at it.
“...What's that?” I asked, though I already knew.
“An axe,” the man replied shortly, making for a door.
“You're... you're not going out there!” I gasped. I didn't even bother making it sound like a question, it was obviously insane.
“Stop squirming, would you? You're only going to hurt yourself worse,” he grunted. “I'll be right back.” And then he was gone, pulling the door shut behind him, and leaving me all alone in the stranger's house.
For a dumbstruck moment, I didn't move.
Then I scrambled to my hands and knees, and with an enormous effort of will, pushed myself to my feet. I tottered woozily for a few seconds, my vision swimming, but managed to keep my footing. I hobbled to a window beside the door my unwilling host had vanished through and peered out it, narrowing my eyes in an attempt to see clearly through the bubbled glass.
I couldn't see a thing in the swiftly darkening network of trees beyond the house. Night was setting in fast now, and it left me blind to what I was sure were the man's final moments.
Sure enough, a few heartbeats later, I heard several hungry howls picked up by the wind. I held my breath, and stared into the gloom, jumping every time I caught the lingering notes of a guttural wolf's cry. Twice I heard them abruptly cut off. Perhaps ten minutes passed in lonely silence. Maybe fifteen. The man didn't return.
Well, that was that then. I pried my nose from the window, and gingerly hobbled back to the site of my landing. Broken clumps of straw made a neat little nest on the floor, with a distinctly me-shaped indent in the center. I was painfully aware of how lucky I was it had been a thatched roof, rather than a brick one. I had fallen straight through it, but it had slowed my fall. The straw had cushioned my landing, and by some miracle I'd passed harmlessly right between the support beams. My body still ached all over, as if I had... well, as if I had just fallen through a roof, and the blinding stabs of pain in my side every time I took a breath made me pretty sure I may have even cracked a rib or two; but it could have been a hell of a lot worse.
I glanced around the room I had landed in, and what I saw was far from what I expected.
For starters, it was a mess.
I was surprised that so much stuff had been crammed into such a small space. There was a long and low table on the far left side of the room, which was piled high with crumpled papers and bent quill pens; little bottles part way full of ink; half eaten meals; and numerous dishes and dainty tea cups, all of which were cracked, chipped, and broken in one way or another.
The floor could have done with a thorough scrubbing. Its owner evidently didn't believe in wiping his shoes on a mat before tramping muddy boots throughout the room, and water stains dappled the floorboards. A massive black iron stove was pushed against the wall across from me at the far end of the room. A fire was burning in it, though it did little to warm the room. It stunk of sap and pine. Next to it was a large, well worn armchair. There were three or four wooden chairs placed at random intervals around the room, none of them matching, and all piled high with stacks of paper or dirty dishes.
On the walls were countless animals pelts, ranging from huge bear skins to tiny rabbit ones. Most of them, however, seemed to be wolf pelts. The sight turned my stomach a little. I liked all animals on principal; though admittedly, my feelings towards wolves at that exact moment weren't exactly warm and fuzzy.
Seeing the pelts brought my thoughts abruptly back to the situation at hand. The man was probably long dead, torn to shreds by the starving wolves. Despite his collection on the walls, I doubted anyone could fight off seven or more of the things single-handedly.
And here I was, stuck alone in his house, with some banged up ribs and no way of knowing whether the creatures were still out there, waiting for me as a tasty after dinner snack.