He smelt the child before he saw her. She was wrapped in hand-sewn clothes with a fur pelt tied around her small neck. For a moment, he feared that he would recognise the carcass as a missing brother or sister, but the animal used to keep her neck and plump cheeks warm was unfamiliar. Just another creature that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could have so easily been him.
The girl was no more than a human cub. She was fragile and careful with her quivering steps through the snowy ground beneath her feet. She walked with her arms reaching out at both sides, helping her to hold her balance as she stumbled through each step. Every so often, she would look over her shoulder, as though someone might appear from the woods. He wondered if she was in danger, but then he saw the spark of mischief in her eyes and knew that her pack simply didn’t know where she was.
He could understand that. There was nothing more tempting than being told that you can’t do something or go somewhere. He had often found himself trotting next to the border of their lands, hoping that he would build the courage to take that first step and then just run. He had never envied a human before, they were so delicate and slow, but in this moment he found the girl so inspiring.
She took another stumble, tripping over her own feet with a musical laugh filled with joy as she caught herself before she could fall. Clamping her hand over her mouth, the girl looked over her shoulder again and giggled. Turning back to the path, she continued on her way, humming a gentle lullaby as she walked.
There was a small skip in her step and her arms swung back and forth as she continued on her adventure. She tried to see everything all at once, her head turning in different directions every few seconds and her eyes scanning for whatever may be important to see. She paused in front of a large tree. She tilted her head back further and further as she tried to see all the way to the top. Her eyes were wide and her mouth hung open revealing her small, blunt teeth.
He had never seen a less offensive creature in his short life. The pack often strayed away from their human neighbours, but he couldn’t understand why. Here was a human completely oblivious to the potential threat surrounding her, experiencing a true moment of happiness and freedom. How could this small, defenceless creature cause such chaos and fear?
As the wind shifted, a new scent joined the young girl’s and out of the shadow of the snow covered trees stepped a man old enough to carry a gun, but young enough to be without whiskers. His eyes fixated on the girl’s suddenly still form, trailing over her clothed body with a growing smile as he walked towards her, laughing under his breath when she took a step backwards.
She stared up at him with full eyes brimmed with tears and a shaking bottom lip. Why was she so afraid? What could he do to her that was so frightening?
“Hello, little one,” he said. “What is your name?”
The girl said nothing. She raised her shaking hand to her mouth, gnawing at the skin on her fingers and thumbs. Her nose twitched as a single tear dropped from her eyes and she looked over her shoulder. The nervousness she had before was gone, now there was a hopeful glint that someone might be waiting for her, that perhaps there was someone standing at the mouth of the path and ready to reprimand her.
“Nothing to say?” The man said with a curling lip. “That’s not very polite. Didn’t your mother teach you what is expected of young women? You should always do as you’re told,”
The girl’s shaking form stumbled backwards again as a shuddered gasp escaped her. She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve and sniffed loudly. She tried to speak, but her voice caught in her throat.
“Now, now, young one,” The man said. “How about you and I visit my little home away from home, hmm? We can play a very special game,” He held out his hand and stared down at the girl, who remained completely still. “Well? Aren’t you going to do as you’re told? My, you are a naughty girl,”
He snatched his hand out and grabbed the girl by her arm, causing her to yelp. The man dragged her forward and pulled her into his arms, holding her struggling body by the waist and straining as she kicked and punched for freedom. He swore and smacked the back of the girl’s head, causing another shout of pain.
“Shut your damned mouth, you little bitch!” He said. He carried her like a sack under his arm, muttering bitter threats and shameful words under his breath as he carried her away from her home.
The wolf felt the fur on his back stand as a silent growl rippled through his chest. He had to be careful. If he was too loud, or too noticeable, then the man would find him before he was ready to attack.
He walked after them in the snow, crouching low in the brambles and bare bushes that concealed his brown fur. Avoiding every dead stick that had fallen to the ground with the snow, he watched as the man hurried through the path, the young girl silently struggling against his tight hands.
Good, the wolf thought. Fight, young one. Survive.
The man’s chest was heavy, moving up and down with excitement as his eyes widened with anticipation. He was almost at the paths end and soon the girl would be on his land. Quickening his steps to a trot, the wolf continued forward, readying himself for the pounce. All he needed was to give the girl enough time to run and scream, then her pack would hear and they would come running. The man could overpower one cub, but he wouldn’t stand a chance against a threatened pack.
The man turned sharply into the trees and disappeared from sight.
The wolf skidded against the icy snow as he stopped himself from walking to far ahead. The man had clearly been heading north to the village that smelled like iron and boasted of their hunts. The girl’s pack didn’t do that. They didn’t display their prey – his family – onto sticks and parade them around like trophies. They were quickly handled so that nothing was wasted. Everything would be used and what couldn’t be would be buried.
Why was he not going to his pack for safety? Why was he not boasting about the girl he had captured?
Why was he running away?
The wolf continued to follow. He traced the scent and the footprints left in the snow. The rustling as the girl struggled was lost in the wind and the movements of the trees. He ran quickly, and caught glimpses of the man through the woods. He was ducking and diving under branches and through brambles and bushes. It was obvious he knew where he was going, but the wolf didn’t.
The wolf yelped as it stumbled and caught his paw in a sunken pit. The ankle twisted and throbbed as it filled with a painful heat. Whimpering, the wolf tried to walk and flinched as he placed pressure onto the injured foot. Limping forward, the wolf tried to follow them further, but the wind had shifted.
The scent was gone, and so was the girl.