The wicked heroine, p.16
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.16

           Jasmine Giacomo

  Chapter Six

  Two hundred and eleven years ago

  The heavy end of autumn lay thick upon the northern plains. The oval valley that was caught in the loop of the icy red-rock ridge cradled snow-smothered grasses; the rest of the horizon was dotted with tundra lakes–blue tears of the sky god, the Ianiu called them–or crowded with clusters of slender pines and ptarmigan scrub. One lake lay puddled around the hairpin curve of the ridge, filling a natural depression in the land. No mere permafrost-puddle, it was fed by the slow drip of water from the cliff, as the afternoon sun melted the ice and snow. When the sun shone at all.

  The wolf knew this small lake well; it was the watering-hole for his pack.

  Today he had woven his way through the grass mounds that ringed the lake; the snow that topped them was higher than his ears. He was thirsty, and curious if any caribou had broken through the ice for him.

  Before he could reach the ice itself, a rare sound reached his ears, and he paused, crouching.

  Horse feet.

  His nose twitched as the distant scent of horseflesh reached it, but he knew he could not take down a lone horse by himself, let alone several. As his golden eyes tracked their progress past the lake, the wind swept a new scent to his nose, and he lifted his snout. A sudden movement above and ahead of him, on a rocky outcrop of the ridge itself, startled him, and he silently bared his fangs. He had not heard nor seen the human at all. Her presence made him wary.

  He watched her kneel, holding something, shooting a stick toward the riders. Across the lake, a man cried out and fell from his horse.

  The wolf’s breath quickened. Perhaps he would get meat after all.

  The other horses stopped, and their riders dismounted, hiding behind the animals. Sticks shot back and forth. One clattered off the cliff and stuck in the snow near him, red feathers quivering. Three more of the men with the horses fell to the snow.

  The wolf caught another scent and realized yet another human was approaching him, and he considered coming back for water later. This newest arrival stopped a few dozen paces away, however. He raised a curved stick toward the woman above. His straight stick caught her in the side, and she crumpled right at the edge of her small rocky platform. She scrabbled against the red stone with her pitiful excuses for claws, then slipped over the rocky ledge above the frozen lake.

  The sound of her skull striking the pale blue ice was incredibly loud.

  The wolf could smell fresh water as well as blood, and since the man nearby was leaving, he waited, thirsty. When the coast was finally clear, and the remaining men and horses had departed, he padded over to the cracked and broken ice, sniffing cautiously.

  The woman was nowhere to be seen. Her blood smeared the ice in the center of a web of thick floating chunks, yet he couldn’t smell her anymore.

  His meal was gone.

  Ever pragmatic, the wolf realized he could still get a drink. Padding cautiously onto the broken ice, he made his way out to the point of impact. Though the scent of blood was distracting, he was very thirsty. He thrust his nose into a narrow gap and lapped.

  The woman’s hand suddenly brushed his muzzle, and he leaped back in surprise, shaking his head and growling for a moment. Her white fingers clawed at the heavy ice hunks, the smallest of which weighed nearly as much as the wolf did.

  He waited.

  The hand slipped back under the water, unable to find purchase.

  After another pause to make sure the cold hand wasn’t going to grab his nose again, the wolf drank his fill. He could feel the open water trying to freeze around his tongue.

  If it was this cold already, perhaps it was time to take the pack south. Pack memory did not recall the season being quite this wicked this early on.

  After slaking his thirst, the wolf trotted on around the lake to see if any of the dead men had been left for him.

  He was not disappointed.

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