Part M, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Zoey focused on the snarling wolf in front of her, trying to clear her mind of everything but the imminent attack. She didn’t stand much of a chance against the beast, armed with just a tree branch, but maybe she could injure it badly enough that it would back off. She figured her best bet was to stab it in the face or throat.
“Ms. Prescott, what are you doing?” came Sam’s panicked voice. “Climb up in the tree, hurry!”
Zoey wasn’t about to tell the girl she didn’t think the slender tree would hold the weight of both of them without bending to the ground. Unfortunately, it was the only tree nearby that could be easily climbed. “It’s okay, Sam, I’ll be fine. You hold on tight and stay where you are.”
She also wasn’t going to admit she was afraid the girl might fall, and no way was she going to be anywhere other than right there ready to defend her if that happened.
Whatever Sam had been about to say was cut off by her high-pitched scream as the wolf lunged for Zoey.
Zoey thrust the stick as the beast lunged. But it moved its head at the last second and the stick glanced off thick neck fur, deflecting the attack slightly but barely slowing it down.
The wolf snarled and lunged again. Zoey held the stick crosswise, braced herself, and pushed with all her strength to throw the wolf aside. The stick snapped in two. The beast jumped at her, snarling and clawing and biting. Zoey sacrificed one raised arm as a shield and used the other to drive her fist in hard punches to whatever sensitive areas she could reach– nose, eyes, side of the head.
The beast knocked her flat on her back, snapping at her face and throat, going for the kill. Zoey grabbed handfuls of fur at its jowls, straightening her arms to hold it at bay. She tucked her chin, guarding her neck. Got in a few good kicks to its underbelly.
But she was injured and tiring rapidly. The wolf was just too strong.
There was no warning, no sound to alert either of them to another presence. Just a sudden hurtling blur of dark fur that came flying through the air, smashing into the wolf attacking her.
Stunned by the sudden absence of weight on her chest, Zoey gulped in huge shuddering gasps of air. Warily, she watched the two wolves roll across the ground, snarling and biting in a ferocious battle for dominance. She got to her feet, trembling and shaken, and picked up both pieces of the broken branch. Preparing to defend herself against the victor.
The newcomer pinned the white wolf momentarily, jaws latched onto the creature’s neck. There was a pained yelp and a flurry of movement and then the white wolf was up and running away.
The gray wolf slowly turned to face Zoey. It was larger than the white one and somehow more menacing. It stalked closer, sniffing the air as it came. Zoey braced herself. She wouldn’t last even a minute against this one.
The wolf got to within arm’s length and stopped. Its hackles weren’t raised, it wasn’t growling or tensing as if ready to lunge. It stared at her for a long moment before lifting its head and letting out a long hair-raising howl.
A few seconds later, Zoey heard movement in the woods behind her. She whirled and saw several dark shapes moving through the shadowy undergrowth. More wolves. Oh dear god, it had called for reinforcements.
Zoey pressed her back against the trunk of the tree and prayed for rescue. But the wolves didn’t attack. They sniffed the wolf that had fought, apparently their alpha, and cautiously sniffed the air around the tree, but didn’t get close. They then arranged themselves in a rough circle around the tree with their backs to her, tense and alert.
They were . . . protecting her?
Zoey took her eyes off them long enough to check on Sam, who had been ominously silent since her first scream. The girl was clinging hard to the trunk, eyes squeezed tightly shut, face starkly pale in the dark.
“Sam? You okay up there?”
“Zoey? Y-you– you’re not d-dead?”
“No, I’m still breathing. Another wolf came and scared off the white one.”
“I-I saw that. B-but then– then it was c-coming for y-you and I c-couldn’t– watch.”
“It didn’t attack me, Sam. It’s sitting over there cleaning itself. Really, open your eyes and see for yourself.”
Sam opened her eyes and screamed. “Zoey! There are more of them!”
“Sam, stop screaming. None of them are attacking. In fact, I think they’re protecting us. Look again.”
Sam looked, but not once did she loosen her grip on the tree. “I’m not coming down until they leave.”
“Okay, that’s fine. I’m sure they’ll be going any minute now.” Zoey wasn’t sure of any such thing, but she could hope.
In the meantime, Zoey talked to Sam in an effort to keep her calm. She recited all the facts she knew about wolves, habits and habitats, what they ate and where they roamed and how many pups were in a litter. Sam sat quietly, taking it all in, not saying a word.
Long minutes passed and the wolves remained where they were. Sam refused to move, remaining where she was. As stalemates go, it was looking to be epic.
It was full dark and the temperature had dropped. Something had to give.
“Sam, I think I should go for help. Maybe Benton can scare the wolves away so we can get back to the house. Will you be okay if I leave?”
“You sure they can’t climb trees?”
“I’d never leave you if they could.”
There was a long silence before Sam spoke. “Okay, yes. Go get help.”
“Great, be right back.” Zoey took two steps away from the trunk where she’d been leaning and the alpha wolf got up and stood in front of her, growling soft and low. A warning?
“It’s all right, buddy, I’m just going for help. Easy now.”
The wolf sat down and Zoey took another step. The wolf got up and growled again. Definitely a warning.
Zoey stepped back until she bumped up against the tree again. “Sam, looks like this wolf wants me to stay put.”
“Someone will come looking for us, right, Zoey? We won’t be out here all night, will we?”
There was real fear in the girl’s voice and Zoey knew she had to do what she’d been dreading. She had so hoped it wouldn’t come to this.
She sighed, resigned. “No, Sam. We won’t have to stay here all night. Hang on.”
Zoey unclipped the fancy new phone from the waistband of her jeans and took a deep breath. She used her sleeve to wipe a smear of blood off the screen, then touched it with her finger and said the fateful words, “Call Anton.”
He answered almost immediately, his stern inscrutable face filling the screen. “Ms. Prescott.”
He probably couldn’t see her in the shadows, but she pasted a bright smile on her face anyway. The one she suspected annoyed him the most.
“Oh good, this thing works.”
“Did you expect it wouldn’t?” he asked dryly.
“You never know with phones. They only work when the person on the other end agrees to answer.”
“Ms. Prescott. You appear to be in the woods.”
“Yes, Anton. In the woods, surrounded by wolves.”
“Wolves,” he said slowly. “What colour are they?”
“I don’t know. Wolf colour. Here, have a look.” She turned the phone so he could see the wolves, dark shapes against the snow.
“Is there by chance a white one?”
How the hell had he known that? “Not anymore. The other wolves ran it off.”
He rubbed a hand across his forehead. She thought perhaps he swore, but it was too soft to hear. “Ms. Prescott, those gray wolves won’t hurt you.”
“Oh, I know that. We’ve become fast friends. But they won’t let us leave.”
“Us,” he repeated. She heard thunder in his voice when he said, “Samantha is with you?”
“Anton, she’s perfectly fine. But that’s why I’m calling. Do you happen to have a ladder?” She angled the phone so he could see Sam, perched up high on a branch, holding on for dear life.
“Don’t. Move.” And then he disconnected and the phone went black.
“So, that went well,” she mumbled to herself.
“Is Uncle Anton coming to help us?”
“Oh, yes. I don’t think anything could keep him away, Sam.”
Zoey noticed there were several dark patches of blood on the ground around the tree — hers, the wolves’, who knew — and she kicked fresh snow to cover them. Sam didn’t need to see a close-up of that.
A moment later, the wolves suddenly all stood at attention, facing the mansion, growling low. A single sharp piercing whistle cut through the night and they all relaxed.
Ferraro and his butler came striding through the snow. He ignored Zoey, his attention completely focused on Sam. Good man, she thought. He nodded to Benton, who grabbed the tree and held it steady as Ferraro vaulted up into it, reaching Sam within seconds.
“Come here, Sammy, I’ve got you. Come on, let go.”
Sam heaved one great sob and threw her arms around her uncle’s neck. Almost instantly, they were back on the ground.
Meanwhile, the wolves had gathered around, pushing each other as if trying to see who could get closest to Ferraro. The alpha nudged the man’s free hand and it looked to Zoey as if the wolf was licking it. Ferraro patted it on the head and said something too low to hear. Suddenly all the wolves took off, yipping and running back into the dark forest.
Only then did he set his niece on the ground, keeping one arm around her shoulders.
“Ms. Prescott. I fail to see how this . . . adventure furthers my niece’s education.”
His voice was deceptively soft, the deadliest she’d ever heard it, but Zoey was too tired and in too much pain to care what he thought in that moment. The rush of fear and adrenaline was wearing off and she was cold and shaking and every single muscle felt bruised. Damn him, he could at least wait until they got inside to yell at her.
“Uncle Anton, it was a field trip. Sort of like extra credit. But then the white wolf was following us and Zoey made me climb the tree and the other wolves came and–”
“Sam, you don’t need to–” Zoey began, fully prepared to take blame where it was due.
But Sam cut her off. “Zoey was very brave. And I learned so much about wolves. Did you know they travel in packs of six to ten wolves and almost never attack people?”
Anton speared Zoey with a murderous look and started the trek back up the hill to the mansion, one strong arm around his niece as they walked side by side. Sam chattered non-stop, burning off her nerves by reciting all the wolf facts Zoey had told her.
Benton followed behind them and Zoey brought up the rear, persona non grata. She’d certainly earned that status. The thought of spending a night alone in the cold woods was the only thing motivating her to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
They entered through the front door and were met by the entire household staff, all making a fuss over Sam and reassuring themselves she was unhurt. Poor girl looked overwhelmed by the unaccustomed attention. Zoey hated to imagine how many nightmares would result from her poor judgment.
She did her best to blend into the shadows of the grand entry, standing a step or two behind Benton, hoping to avoid Ferraro’s wrath for a few more minutes. She just needed to catch her breath and stop shaking first.
She felt a tickling sensation and looked down to see a thin trail of blood running down her wrist and over the back of her hand, dripping slowly into a dark puddle on the polished marble floor. Great, she was making a mess to add to her sins.
God, she was cold. She didn’t usually drink hard liquor, but tonight might be an exception.
“Benton?” she said quietly, exhaustion in every word, “I wouldn’t turn down a shot of whisky, if you’ve got any on hand.”
Benton stepped back, looking startled to realize she was behind him. He opened his mouth and, instead of the expected terse reply, gave a loud gasp.
Zoey watched as everyone stopped talking and turned to stare at her. The scene seemed to flow in slow motion, voices distorted by the ringing in her ears.
Ferraro sounded far away. “Ms. Prescott.”
Mrs. Darby, muffled alarm. “Saints preserve us.”
Sam, like she was underwater. “Zoey, you’re bleeding.”
“Tell me that’s not your blood.” Ferraro’s voice was harsh, his face tight with some emotion. Completely out of character, she mused, feeling numb.
Two long strides and he was there, tugging at her coat, removing it. Easy enough to do as most of the buttons were missing and it hung from her shoulders by mere scraps. He grabbed the hem of her long-sleeved T-shirt, what was left of it, and pulled the shredded mess over her head. She winced as the snug neckline dragged over her face, grazing the welts on her cheek.
She stood there, dazed and defenseless, manhandled like a floppy rag doll being undressed and examined by a careless child. Stripped down to a blood stained tank top and filthy torn jeans, wounds dripping blood on the floor, vulnerable and exposed, the object of everyone’s horrified gaze.
“My god,” Ferraro growled in a low voice, “you’ve been mauled.”
“Yeah,” she said weakly, “and the wolf got in a few licks too.”
She tried for a wry smile but wasn’t sure she managed it with her aching face. She felt herself falling, spinning slowly, floating down, patterned marble moving closer . . . and then knew nothing but darkness.
M is for Mauled (or, you know, for Massively long post)
(probably tomorrow’s post will be short) (I’m almost sure of it)