I didn’t think they would follow me out here where the ice thins and I can hear the crash of the ocean. The wind is wilder here and has freed the ice of its protective layer of snow, making it slick. Slipping now would be fatal. The wind whips off my hood, but I can’t stop to fix it. Their chilling calls rise above the roar of the wind and sea, and I know the Howlers have nearly reached me. My lungs ache with each cold breathe I take, but I push myself harder. I have to.
My eyes leak frozen rivers across my cheeks. I lost my goggles when I tripped and rolled down a powdery hill before reaching the flat ice. The cold and wind burn my eyes. That, and I might be crying. A rush of heat runs up my thigh and all I hear now are Howlers. They’re breathing on me! I scream. It doesn’t help me run faster or release the fear clawing at my heart, but it excites the Howlers. I want to cover my ears to their deafening cries; they know a kill is soon.
No one will hear me out here, days from the shining citadel of Hiverfryt, but I can’t go quietly. I release another scream. It’s part fear and part anger. I was so close to finding my sister when the Howlers caught my scent. Now I never will. Suddenly, my fur boots slip. I try to correct myself by flailing my arms, but there is nothing to catch. I’m grabbing at air as I fall backwards. The Howlers are so close, one leaps over me in a giant stride before turning on me.
Squinting at the sun, he is nothing more than white wisps. Despite this, their teeth are sharper than knives. I’m nearly nose to nose with him, staring into his red eyes before I think to turn on my stomach and cover my head with my hands. Teeth try to find me through the layers of my clothes as I press my nose into the ice. I scream again as one tears off my mitten and bites my wrist. There are paws on my back and my hood pulls taut across my neck. It cuts off my scream.
The ice moves beneath me. I can barely breathe, but I close my lips tight hoping to trap some air. I crash through headfirst in the blue-black waters. The Howlers don’t follow me into the sea; they can’t swim. Neither can I really, not with my parka dragging on my limbs. I manage to turn and look up at the hole of light. I kick, but I barely move. The water finds ways to reach my skin as it comes in the tops of my boots and under my parka and tunic. I’ll freeze soon.
The Howlers might wait to see if I can make it out of the water, but it will be in vain. My legs are exhausted from kicking and I’m no nearer the surface. I lift my bare hand toward the surface and my ebony skin shimmers in the sunlight. My thoughts are fuzzy. The light from the ice hole shrinks. I’d rather drown than be shredded by Howlers anyway. A bubble of air slips past my lips and I close my eyes.
The chill fades from my bones. I hear the crackle of a fire nearby and something warm presses against my bare skin. I snuggle closer, but keep my eyes closed. Fingers touch my cheek.
“Efia?” My eyes shoot open and brown eyes peer back. I scream.
“Hold on, Efia!” he yells back, hugging me tighter as I try and roll away. “It’s just me. Kofi? Remember?”
“I know it’s you,” I shriek. “But I’m naked! You’re naked! Why are we naked?”
He blushes. I elbow him hard in the ribs.
“Ow! You almost froze to death.”
I stop struggling. “What?”
“Actually we both did. I had to dive in to get you,” he explains.
It all comes pounding back to me: the ocean, the Howlers, Aba missing. I sit up and the blanket that had been on us falls to my waist. I turn to Kofi and search his face for answers.
“Did you find her?”
He turns away and pulls the blanket up to my neck. I grab it from him harshly, wincing with pain from my wrist. Kofi has bandaged it for me. He grabs his trousers and pulls them on under the blanket before standing up and reaching for his boots.
“No, not yet.” He turns back to me and scowls. “You should have waited for me.”
I snort. “Wait for you? You mean wait for that block-headed council of yours to approve it?”
I stand and wrap the blanket around me as I inch toward my clothes drying by the fire. We’re still on the ice, but he has sheltered us from the worst of the wind using his horses and sled. Kofi pulls on his last boot and stands up. He’s a foot taller than I am now and his dark skin ripples with muscles that weren’t there when we were kids. I look away and hope my cheeks are still too cold to blush.
“I left without their consent,” he says, handing me some clothes from the sled. I give him a questioning look. “Yours are still wet.”
I pull them on as he turns away and stares across the ice toward the ocean. I have to roll the sleeves and legs. These must be Kofi’s clothes. I sniff the fur lining of the parka. It smells of horses and cloves, definitely his.
He turns back and comes close, gripping my elbows tightly. I look up to meet his stare.
“I was almost too late.” He stops and swallows hard. I wiggle out of his grip and back toward the sled.
“Let’s hope we’re not too late for Aba. I thought I saw something right before the Howlers started chasing me.”
He still looks like he wants to say more about my recklessness so I start packing. Thankfully, Kofi takes the hint and starts to pack too. Every second out in the freezing air counts. Within minutes, I’m tying down the last of the supplies on the sled and Kofi’s harnessing the horses.
Kofi hands me a new pair of goggles, which I pull in place before I step on the runners and he steps on behind me, wrapping his arms around me to grab the reins. He snaps them and the horses are galloping within seconds, their thick black manes streaming in the wind. Their hooves are large and flat so they can move across the ice and snow swiftly, and their small bodies conserve heat. No one outside of the royal stables of Hiverfryt has such fine horses.
The wind has swept all tracks from the snow, so I’m searching for the smallest things. I see a strange dent in the snow, so I direct Kofi toward it.
“Are you sure?” His mouth is so close to me that his breath warms my ear and neck. I nod and he doesn’t question me further. This isn’t the first time I’ve tracked someone in the snow, just the first time I’ve tracked my little sister. I bite my lip so it can’t tremble.
A streak of red catches my eye in the snow ahead. Kofi’s already turning the sled toward it; it’s too obvious to miss. He slows the sled as we approach. My chest is so tight with fear that I can’t breathe. I push his arm and jump off of the sled, running to the offending mark and staring in disbelief. It’s blood.
“Aba!” I scream.
I turn and run around the towering snow bank. There is more blood and I follow it, screaming for her. Ahead I see a brown lump. Aba! Hold on! My legs are shuddering with exhaustion and my throat is raw from almost drowning, but I fly towards her. I hear snow crunching behind me from Kofi running too.
I collapse next to her and push my fingers against her neck. It takes the longest moment in my life to find her pulse, but I do. It’s faint, but steady. I start to sob.
“She’s alive, Kofi.” He squeezes my shoulder. “What is it?”
He doesn’t answer, so I turn to look. He’s holding her arm. The sleeve of her parka and tunic have been torn and her arm weeps blood into the snow.
“Bandages,” I order Kofi.
“Read it,” he commands.
He holds up her arm and I move closer. Teeth have gouged her flesh viciously. It takes me a moment to see the word in the wound. It must have been Howlers. The lines look similar to the ones on my own wrist, but mine are ragged bites while Aba’s are careful and precise: THIEVES. What does it mean?
I meet Kofi’s gaze and it’s as confused as my own.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Anne. Join us every Monday next month when we post four more tales on a new prompt.