Her shifting about in her sleep awoke him. Another nightmare. She had been having a lot of them lately. Gently, he pulled her to him, smoothing hair from her face. She cried out, flailing her arms defensively.
“Shh, Annie. Shh…” he whispered, taking careful hold of her hands. “It’s just another bad dream.” She began to sob then, her face turning to the warmth of his shoulder.
At their feet, a warm body slunk forward, sensing her distress. It came to rest with its head propped on her hip, a soft whine issuing from its muzzle. He reached and began to scratch the she-wolf behind an ear.
It pained him when she was like this, when she regularly dreamed of her childhood. Of those who had hurt her. Who had forever maimed her.
He kissed her face before crawling out from under the furs. The air in the tent was chill as he stepped around the fire pit to get to the water bucket. No sooner had he left her side than a second wolf bellied into the space he had vacated.
A thin layer of ice had formed at the surface of the ice bucket. Using the dipper, he broke it up before bringing some water over to her. She was already sitting up when he returned to the bed, fingers tangled in the thick ruff of both wolves.
He smiled ironically to himself. She had always had an unspoken bond with the two animals. Even now, they sought to do what they could to comfort her.
Kneeling next to her, she took the dipper from him with both hands before taking a small sip. She then tipped her head back, allowing that small amount to trickle to the back of her throat so that she could swallow. He watched her intently as she repeated the process, ready to act should she need help.
Once she had taken her fill, he took the dipper back, taking a drink for himself. When he returned, she had laid back down and buried her face in the fur of the she-wolf. He settled in next to her, he and the wolves acting to insulate her from any potential threat.
He then began to rub her back, to calm her and help her sleep. “Thank you, Grey.” She said, her speech heavily garbled and almost unintelligible.
He hugged her tightly and kissed her temple, refusing to let her go.
Annie had not been born to the tribe. That was obvious enough. She was of light skin and eyes, a “Frontier Settler” as her people called themselves.
Grey’s tribe traded with them. Fur mostly, sometimes meat, for woven cloth and tools. But more often than not they kept to themselves, as that many of these “Settlers” did not care overly much for the tribal people.
That had not been the case with Annie and her family.
They had once established a small trading post in the “interior” as they had called it. They had the basics, but they kept their hearth available to travelers who were in need of a warm place to sleep and a meal in their belly. Grey’s father and uncles had been regular guests, bringing fresh meat in exchange for the hospitality.
When Grey was deemed old enough, he was brought along to the excursions to the outpost. It was then that he had met Annie for the first time. She had seemed strange to him at first, with her pale skin and strange dress. But she had been fascinated by the partnership Grey’s people had formed with the wolves.
She did not exhibit fear, merely cautious admiration, allowing the wolves to come to her. The attraction between the girl and wolves had been mutual, the wolves surrounding her, sniffing, tails wagging. She had giggled as they snuffled her face with their wet noses.
Grey always looked forward to when they would visit the trading post. He liked Annie and she liked the wolves. But then all of that had changed.
The air had smelled of burned wood, and once they had stepped through the trees, they saw why. The little cabin and outbuilding had been burned to the ground. The recently new-fallen snow was marked with the tracks of scavengers, the churned up snow stained with the red of blood.
Grey had been horrified. People he had considered his friends had been brutally killed. Murdered.
After digging through the snow, they had found the remains of Annie’s mother and father. Her father had been tied to a nearby tree and tortured to death. Her mother, the adults refused to speak about.
But Annie was nowhere to be found.
They began to look for signs of where those responsible may have come from, and where they had gone. One had either been wounded, or was still covered in blood, as it did not take overly long for the wolves to pick up a trail. The animals took off, the scent of blood driving them.
Grey remembered having followed after his father and uncles as they ran through the forest. The wolves were so fast, disappearing in the trees until they stopped every so long, sniffing in circles and lifting their noses to the wind before taking off again. The tracking took hours, the animals being inexhaustible until they eventually came to a stop in a gully, pawing at the snow and rooting into it with their snouts. Then they started to dig.
Even the adults, who were experienced hunters, had never seen anything like it. The wolves dug furiously in the snow for several moments before the humans joined them. And that was where they found her. She was so still, so pale. They thought her to be dead at first, until Frygg, the mother to Annie’s own Maura, had begun to lick her face.
Blood had run from her mouth, and on closer inspection, they learned that was because her tongue had been cut out. Hypothermia had slowed her heart-rate, keeping her from bleeding to death. Laying face-down in the snow had kept her from choking on it. Bundling her up the best they could, Grey’s father had then cradled Annie in his arms the whole way back to the village.
It had been very much touch and go those first few days. The Shamans had chanted over her night and day, burning incense and applying herbal poultices. She lived, growing stronger over time, but the cold had taken its toll. Her fingers and toes had suffered some frostbite, and no matter how many blankets they piled on her, she still shivered.
While they tended to Annie, the wolves paced and whined around the outer perimeter of the tent. Until Frygg had forced her way inside and lay next to the shivering girl. Any attempts to put her out were met with a curled lip and a show of teeth, so they let her be and there she stayed.
Not all of Annie’s tongue was gone, but enough of it had been removed to make eating and drinking exceptionally difficult. Had it not been for Frygg’s vigilance, she would have surely choked on her own saliva and the meager broth they quickly learned how to trickle down her throat.
On the fifth day, Annie regained consciousness. She awoke to find Frygg’s head resting on her chest, amber eyes watching her intently, tail gently twitching. It had been that moment that Annie knew she was safe.