Leaving Tracks in the Snow
She was going to freeze.
Elaina grasped this with a grim and dizzy wonder as she staggered, hopeless, through sheets of falling snow. This wasn't how she'd imagined dying. She'd planned to live to one hundred and pass away in her sleep after a life full of adventure and discovery. Instead she would die lost and unknown in a strange country, wandering in an endless whiteout, searching fruitlessly for help.
Oh, God... I'm so alone.
"Stupid Elaina," she scolded herself, speaking aloud to keep her lips moving, though it hurt. "How could you wander off into the damned wilderness without a guide? Are you a child for Christ's sake? Stupid, stupid idiot…"
She must continue moving, and the conversation—one-sided as it was—kept her brain awake and saved it from spiraling down into vague, heavy cold. It hardly mattered by now, though: night would fall soon, and the snow still fell in unseasonably heavy drifts, turning the Siberian forest into an unchanging alien landscape. She’d left the campgrounds hours ago, to hike to the famous Stolby rock formations... and, foolishly, she'd wanted to do it on her own.
Her compass must have broken at some point. Who knew when or how it had given up its magnetic magic, but as the afternoon wore on with no sign of the cabins, she concluded she'd been moving away from the park's visitor's village, not toward it, this whole time.
"Stupid," she said again. Tears came to her eyes, crystallizing on her lashes, useless and infuriating. "How many times have you been reminded tourists should never wander off alone?"
Too often. She'd backpacked through Europe and down into Africa and even Australia. Under the care of experienced guides, she’d learned to traverse mountains and jungle and desert. She'd always been thorough, prepared, careful to plan out her excursions with others. Yet here she was, lost because she'd made the classic mistake of thinking she could manage an unscheduled trip—just one mile up the road!—in unfamiliar territory. Now she’d freeze, all by herself, and nobody would ever know where she'd gone.
Dominic should have been here with her. He was supposed to be here with her. They'd talked about this trip to Stolby for years. Then, just a week before their departure, in a single quiet, callous dismissal, Dominic broke things off. It's just not working.
"Bullshit," she swore, again out loud, just trying to keep brain and body moving. Hadn’t that been Dominic’s problem, though? Elaina the outdoorswoman, Elaina the travel fanatic, always moving. She never stopped. Always ready for a new trip, always looking for the next grand adventure, while Dominic wanted to stand still. Too comfortable, too much of a homebody. In the end, for him, the relationship became a chore. That was the exact word he'd used: chore.
She couldn't stop revisiting the breakup over and over in her head. And she could hear it so well in the tone of his voice: the exasperation, the resentment. The burden.
"Arrogant sson of a bitsh..."
She paused, blinked, and scrubbed at her mouth. Slurred speech—another symptom.
Keep moving, Elaina. Keep moving!
She shuffled back into motion. What had she been thinking about?
Dominic. Boyfriend of ten years and ex as of last week. A whole goddamn decade together, and all she got from him was, it's just not working. She hated how a part of her kept asking, What did I do wrong? Could I have done something different?
So here she walked, lost, and freezing, and no one back at the visitor's camp—no one anywhere in this whole part of the world—knew or cared where she’d gone or what would happen to her. Perhaps she’d done this to herself on purpose. Chosen recklessness out of spite. But maybe—more likely—she’d done it out of lonely desperation. She needed to escape the reality that her cabin, booked for two, was now too big by half. She wanted to run from the fact that the man to whom she'd devoted a third of her life, so much love and energy, had discarded her like some unpleasant obligation. Of course Elaina knew better than to wander off in a strange wilderness by herself, especially during dubious weather conditions. The real problem was that she'd been lost before she'd even left camp.
I should never have come on this stupid trip in the first place.
Her shivering had started to fade. She thumped her arms to generate heat, but dizziness and confusion weighed on her more and more. No matter how much she wanted to ignore them, they would soon overwhelm her. Her stomach hurt, and despite her attempts to stay focused, her attention kept slipping away. She'd stopped hoping to find the campgrounds behind the next naked stand of trees or to hear the sound of voices, other people, nearby. Once or twice she had thought she heard something... some kind of music... faint and far away...
But that was her delirium. At this point, she only kept moving to keep moving, desperate for a miracle.
It just isn't working.
Elaina tripped and tumbled into the snow. The frozen crystals scuffed her face. It stung like a scraped knee on gravel. The fall swept all the world out from under her, and she lay on the ground stunned for a very long time, her mind a terrible white blank, panicky rabbitish fear scrabbling in her chest.
The scathing voice of her mother found her. Well, now, Elaina, I don't know what else you expected.
And Dominic. You're just so needy.
She couldn't get back to her feet. Not because she hurt. Because exhaustion weighed her down, anchoring her to the earth. She couldn't make her body pull itself together. Couldn’t find the strength.
This is it. One perfect, crystallizing thought welled up from a thick, vague haze of feeling.
I'm going to freeze. I'm going to die. Alone.
She wanted to scream, but she could only shiver, stiffly curling herself inwards, like a child in the womb.
Like a corpse in the snow.
The music returned. Looping, rhythmically eccentric. Annoying. What is that?
Of course, in her last moments, there'd have to be some stinking cherry on top of everything else. Today, it was death by hypothermia—and some stupid song playing over and over again in her head.
She didn't know how much time passed. The faint scuff of a sound tugged at her attention. Somewhere nearby. The shifting weight of ice on a tree branch, or the rustle of skeletal limbs in the wind.
The crunch of soft footsteps approaching.
Something cold and wet touched her ear. A loud snuffling sound; a rush of warm breath against her skin. Something—a dog?—gave a low whine.
Dizzy, delirious, Elaina managed to turn her face toward the sound.
Not a dog. A wolf.
Two wolves. One tawny and golden, the other jet-black with soft, luminous blue eyes. They stood right there. They crowded over her, regarding her with indecision. They probably weren’t sure what to do with a frozen dinner. But no instinct, no fear, stirred Elaina enough for her to attempt to rise. No rush of adrenaline, no willpower to cry out or try to scare the animals off. The golden one leaned forward and prodded her again with its freezing wet nose.
Elaina shivered and curled up again, sinking into unconsciousness.
When Elaina woke again, she felt... pleasantly warm. She reached for the zipper on her thick jacket, even as she remembered paradoxical undressing was another sign of severe hypothermia—and found she wasn't wearing the jacket anymore.
A heavy blanket covered her. Thick flannel, soft with age, pleasantly imbued with a subtle, earthy scent; the lingering presence of a familiar user. The same scent was on the small camp pillow under her head.
Elaina moved the blanket aside and examined herself. Her stiff limbs complained, and her fingers ached, but she counted all ten of them, still attached, pale and swollen but not blue at all. Someone had stripped her down to her simple, sleeveless gray undershirt and her black boy-leg shorties. The same person, presumably, slipped her boots off, too, but they'd left her the thick woolen socks she'd put on over thinner cotton ones that morning.
The cotton ones were gone, though. Her mystery benefactor had taken off both pairs and then put the thicker ones back on. Checking her toes for frostbite?
She lay on a thin camper's mat. Spread on top of the flannel blanket she found a colorful woven quilt. As she blinked, trying to clear the blurriness of sleep from her eyes, she guessed she must be in some sort of large camping tent. When she looked again, though, the walls around her were rough, gray, solid stone. The floor, too. Not a tent. A cave.
A warm cave.
"How do you feel?"
Elaina gave a start and gathered the blanket up to her chest in a nervous twitch. Turning at the sound of the stranger's voice, she discovered the source of the heat—a decent-sized campfire built close to the mouth of the cave. Beside it, balancing on the balls of his feet, crouched a man.
He wore no clothing, and held himself with a nimble grace, elbows resting on his knees. He gazed back at her, placid, evidently unconcerned at appearing before her in total nudity. His eyes were... not quite right. At first, they appeared to be a deep, whiskey hazel, but then they caught the firelight and turned a rich reddish gold. They held a strange, uncanny intelligence, distant and patient and penetrating. They didn't look like human eyes.
The man was tan, broad shouldered, with fine white scars crisscrossing his chest and arms. His hair shone rich, soft brown, turning coppery where it became the stubble of a beard. Thick curls of the same color dusted his chest and arms, and lead southward from his navel in a darkening trail. He had strong, noble features, a blade of a nose and sensual lips, eyelashes thick and lovely over those burning eyes.
Elaina scrutinized him from his shoulders to his powerful arms and large, callused hands. Then her gaze slipped down his chest, over his flat stomach and finally—
She glanced away, making a soft sound of nervous apology in her throat.
"Do you speak Russian?" he asked, in that language.
"Da," Elaina replied. Her words came out much quieter than she meant them to, caution making her uncertain. "Only a little."
He switched to English. "Is this better?"
For a man with such a soft, rough voice, he addressed her with an unexpectedly cultured accent. She nodded.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Elaina Jacob. I'm from Chicago."
He mulled that over, and for an instant his eyes changed again. He blinked, and in the space of time between one flutter of lashes and the next, Elaina could swear they turned empty, glittering black full through, without iris, pupil or sclera at all. Then, before she could be sure she’d really seen anything, they were rich amber again.
"I am Kolya," the man told her. "My brother is Gavri. He found you. We pulled you out of the snow."
"Thank you." She didn't know what else to say. "Ah...how is it you two happened to be out there in the middle of the wilderness?"
"These are our woods," he replied. "We know them."
Elaina straightened. "Your woods? Are you from Krasnoyarsk?"
He gave her an oblique look. "No."
"Oh," she said, settling back down. After a few silent moments, she asked, "Did you see the wolves?"
Kolya raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing.
A few seconds later, there came a sound at the mouth of the cave. Elaina looked up in time to see a dark shape slip in out of the snow, only a shadow in the flickering light of the fire. Within moments the shape resolved itself into another man, also naked, except for a large canteen slung on a belt over one shoulder. He crouched on his hands and knees as though he'd stumbled climbing over the thick white hillocks building up at the cave's entrance. He shook himself all over, throwing drops of wet ice from his lean body, then stood to join his brother by the fire. How could either of them stand the freezing night?
He said something in Russian to the other man as he unslung the canteen. He came to an abrupt halt, though, when he saw she’d awoken. His lips parted as though he meant to speak again... but nothing came out.
If Kolya's eyes burned amber and gold like rich liquor, Gavri's shimmered like snow dust on pale blue ice. His hair gleamed, a gorgeous, raven black so sleek it picked up hints of indigo in the glow of the flame. He wore it long, the ends brushing the strong line of his bare shoulders. Unlike Kolya, though, he had no beard. His skin proved very fair where Kolya's bore an even tan, and standing at his full height, completely unclothed, the agile strength of his body was on full display.
Elaina realized her mouth hung open too, and she almost certainly looked much more foolish that way than he did. Closing it, she felt heat rise to her cheeks.
"Heh—um... hello," she said, clearing her throat when it all at once seemed a bit too hoarse.
"I'm glad you're awake," Gavri replied. His English sounded perfectly fluent, despite his accent. He had a huskier voice than Kolya's but he spoke with an edge of excitement. "How do you feel? Can you move your fingers and toes?"
"Yes. Thank you."
He crossed the space in eager strides to drop to the floor beside her, offering her the canteen. "Drink. I brought it from the camp of our medicine woman. It's only hot broth, but she did add a few herbs to help you recover."
Taking it from him, she did as told. The broth warmed her at once, a savory-sweet stock similar to beef soup, but not exactly. Some other kind of meat, she guessed, and she couldn't even begin to name the spices. The flavor was heavenly. A small sound of pleasure escaped her as she swallowed it down in slow, careful gulps.
When she'd finished the canteen, she glanced from one man to the other. "You two don't look like brothers at all."
"Not brothers by blood," Kolya explained. "Brothers of a nature. Compatriots. Friends."
He traded a look with Gavri belying mere friendship. A look filled with something tender, secretive, affectionate.
"Oh," she said. "Look, um…"
Both men turned to her, unsettling in their identical, impassive stillness. Had she ever seen anybody hold themselves so perfectly motionless?
"Why are you both naked?" she finally asked.
They glanced at each other. Something else passed between them, a ripple of uncertainty, and it occurred to Elaina that Gavri's strange and lovely blue eyes were the exact same color as those of the black wolf, staring down into hers through the freezing snow.
"It's okay," she offered, when neither one seemed able to answer her question. "You...don't have to explain."
Kolya's amber gaze glittered. Another secretive smile played across his lips.
Gavri stood slenderer than Kolya, quicker of movement but no less fascinating. His features looked more delicate, almost puckish, a bit sharp and petulant. It softened him, made him look younger. He bore a more compact strength, muscles deliciously defined, all coiled lean whipcord next to Kolya's solid athleticism. Long of limb and less scarred, though one ferine white slash marked the left side of his chest. He had the stomach men in fitness magazines strove for, if not the unrivaled bulk.
And the package on him. She’d been startled into an awkward sort of politeness to avoid ogling Kolya so obviously, but if neither one was going to do something about their nudity, she couldn't help but look. Kolya flaunted his equipment unabashedly, and she found it beautiful in a lazy, careless way. Gavri's, however, had come fully to attention, perhaps a testament to his comparative youth.
Brutally suggestive. Tranquil, and primal. It made her heart swell. They possessed the sort of figures Renaissance sculptors labored to free from cold, shapeless marble.
They aren't human. They're...otherworldly.
She shivered again.
"Are you still cold?" Gavri asked. She held up a hand to reassure him, but her words died as the warmth of his body took her breath away.
The camp, heated by the fire and insulated by the snow piled at the entrance, made a comfortable shelter, but only in the sense of natural physical requirement. Not precisely what she would call grand. When Gavri crouched beside her—when he placed one firm hand against her cheek—he gave off a delicious heat like slipping into a steaming bath, or lying on her stomach on a smooth, sun-washed stone. Titillating, suffusing, it made her gasp, sending a tingle through her skin.
"O-oh." The word came out in a moan. Hardly aware she did it, she leaned closer to him. She remembered the bone-deep cold of the snow nearly devouring her, the lost and helpless sorrow. The lonely hurt and bitter insecurity driving her out into the unknown in the first place.
This man found her. This stranger rescued her from freezing to death, by herself, in a foreign wilderness far from home. Gazing into his eyes, Elaina tumbled into a rush of emotion. Tears filled her eyes.
And... that song again. That strange, lyrical, winding music. What was that?
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I shouldn't have been so stupid. I shouldn't have gone out into the snow all alone. I know better, I really do know better, but—"
Gavri let out a sound something like a pensive, grumbling sigh. He tilted his head one way, then the other, examining her, as if her crying presented him with a curious problem. Elaina hiccupped, bowing her head, but he bowed his with her, touching his forehead to hers.
"It's all right," he assured her. "We have you now."
He smelled of the woods, of pine and earth and the remnants of snow in his hair. The heat of his body suffused her, chasing away the memory of the cold closeness of death.
His hand on her cheek slid back into the tangled mess of her long, toffee-brown curls, cradling her head. Gavri tilted her face up to his, letting her meet his eyes. He wore a look of heartbreaking, inquisitive concern.
Elaina reached up and brushed back the dark hair at his temple. His ear, hidden under the long waves of soft mane, elongated in the curve, and tapered towards the end. Pointed.
Like a wolf's.
"Oh," she said again. A flutter of nervous wonder rose in her chest, chased by something peculiar, something tantalizing. It hit her like a shot of strong booze. Was it his scent? Because he really, really did smell so good...
Was there something in the broth? she wondered. Some medicine? I feel... unsteady.
In the back of her mind, the music hit a curious, captivating pitch.
She became acutely conscious of their seclusion. Here they were, isolated in the woods in a relentless snowfall. Just her, and two strangers. Two naked strangers.
"Is this real?" she whispered.
"You're shaking," Gavri said. "You need real food."
"I'm all right. I'm Elaina, by the way."
He blinked, and just like Kolya, for an instant the pale, scathingly beautiful color of his eyes drowned in a sensuous flood of glassy black, like a dark mirror swallowing her. On Gavri, though, the change didn't immediately fade. She glanced away before it could absorb her completely. Instead, she studied the scar on his chest. One bright, white, jagged line across smooth skin.
In a tipsy sort of stupor, she let the sleeping bag slip from her grip and away from her body. "Your woods," she whispered. "Because you're…"
A hungry growl rumbled up from deep in his throat. A warning? His nostrils flared; he must be taking in her scent. Without bothering to hide his assessment, he let his gaze wander over her body, considering the shape of her figure underneath the simple undergarments, until he met her eyes again.
"Did you put something in the canteen?" she breathed. "Are you going to hurt me?"
"I did not, and I am not."
Elaina shook her head. "I feel buzzed. I keep thinking I hear... I don't know. What is happening to me?"
"You're not the only one," he murmured. "We need to keep you warm, Elaina." Then, as though compelled, he took her head in his hands, and pulled her to him for a greedy kiss.
He didn't simply kiss her: he claimed her, the heat and desire in his gesture welling up in her blood like stoking a glow from resting coals. The contact thrilled her. It lit her up in a way she rarely experienced. She knew she should have felt fear, sharp and bright, clanging through her like an alarm. He was a stranger, he was some kind of naked wild man in the wilderness, and he had her at his mercy in a cave where no one would ever know.
And yet, she surrendered herself into his hands. His wild, masculine pheromones drew her, and she recognized her own sweet scent of response. Images in her mind drove her closer to him: cold, endless wilderness; racing elk and rabbits and stoats; the rush of rivers and the songs of trees. She'd been cold, so cold, and he brought her warmth, the most primal and perfect warmth, the deepest evocations of life. Sweet electricity buzzed along her skin, tingling like a feather swept ever-so-slowly across her most sensitive parts.
"Oh," she groaned as their lips parted again. She didn't want him to pull away, to lift his touch from her body. When he started to lean back, she stopped him, raising both arms to invite him closer instead.
"No," she whispered. "No, don't leave me, please. It was so cold... I thought I would freeze. I thought I would die. This... you... you feel so good."
She buried her face against the hollow of his neck, deeply inhaling his delicious scent. Snow, clean and crisp, and the wild, wonderfully acrid spice of wilderness. Underneath it she detected desire, adamant need. She breathed him in, marveling at him, his mouth covering hers again in predatory hunger and his body pressing her down to the floor.
What am I doing? I must be dreaming. I have to be dreaming.
Oh, but if I am, don't let me wake up...