The Hunters

In the candied-almond sky that stretched over more than half the world, the snowmobile came to a perfect, spluttering stop right at her front gate. I twisted the engine off as Qimmiq caught up. The husky stood, panting, ready to give chase again at a second's notice.

"Hey, Cheyenne! Ya wanna go fishing?" I called up to the house.

The long shadows of the morning clothed the veranda still. On the porch swing, my cousin hunched deeper into her parka, deeper into her illusory world where I didn't exist. Two black button eyes in a bone-white puffball studied us from her lap: little Keelut. Watching. Silent. Qimmiq sniffed, hunting the tales of the breeze, searching out any stray scent of Keelut's mood. I doubted Cheyenne would share her scent with the wind. Closed-fisted, that was the word for her.

"Come on, Cheyenne!" I chucked a stone at the truck tire laid off by her front gate, sinking deeper into the tundra every spring. My fingers gripped the chain link fence and shook it. But it made no difference: today, my cousin's world didn't include me. You'd think she was a cripple or something, I thought to myself with a chuckle, slipping my gloves back on.

I should've sailed off into the sunrise with a kick of my heel, a Steve McQueen of the North, proud, independent, free. What did I need her for anyways? Qimmiq and I would have fun on our own.

It never happens the way it does in movies. It took three tries to coax the snowmobile back into life, by which time a herd of snow-suited toddlers had waddled up to bear witness. In a mushroom cloud of exhaust, the snowmobile finally lurched up the hill out of town.

Out, away, free. Watching Qimmiq sprint through the drifts was pure joy by proxy. His eyes bright like suns, his white teeth grinning. His muscles reaching and snatching in seamless coordination under his ivory forest of fur, eating up the miles. His breath shooting out, little clouds of breath that atomised as soon as they were stripped of his body's warmth. That grinning mouth ate up the trail like it was nothing. No wonder all the girls liked him. Qimmiq had probably fathered half the pups in town.

Not Keelut's, though. Not Cheyenne's precious pure bred bitch. Keelut never made it outside the house when she was in season, and probably wouldn't have recognised a dog even if someone dragged her out. Keelut was sure she was human. Her job was to sit with her Cheyenne at all times, like a good sister would. Endure her patting, her silences. At least that was something about Cheyenne: she didn't talk your ear off like some girls. 'Course, that had its drawbacks too, like today when she was showing you she didn't need anyone at all. Apart from Keelut. Well, let her stew.

I gripped the handlebars tighter, guiding the machine through the silent ice-scape, ripping up the silence with my diesel- powered snarls. The meringue-pink and duck egg- blue scarps made awesome jumps, and Qimmiq and I egged each other on to find the best.

Then the ice changed. A visitor wouldn't notice it, but the hillocks and humps buckling the snow disappeared. The land had fallen away beneath the ice sheet: now we raced over the frozen crust of the ocean. It wasn't a calm, millpond sea though: snap-frozen waves and erupting tide cracks provided plenty of action. Crazy fun.

When we'd crossed the bay, I slowed down to manoeuvre through the grounded bergs of the point. A sand bar stretched out some twenty blue metres beneath us, trapping the ice bergs that floated past from the north. In the spring, the seals use the lee of the looming blocks of ice as shelter for their pupping dens. The wind was by far the coldest thing out here, and shelters few and far between, especially on the ocean. So seals are smart: but we're smarter, because we can steal their good ideas.

I set myself down in lee of a berg on a little scrap of bearskin, got all my reels in position in the dark waters of the polynya, and settled down to wait. Dad used to come hunting here when he was young, harpoon raised interminably above a breathing hole; his dogs sitting silent, still as the ice, waiting to help drag the meat home. A carefully crunching from behind told me Qimmiq had caught up and was finding himself the perfect snow den. I didn't turn. He knew, once he'd settled, there was no moving til I caught a fish. You didn't have to tell him to be still. He knew.

You could see why Keelut thought she was human. Dogs weren't far off, really. They knew what we wanted, and what we were saying half the time too. Even if they pretended they didn't, if the occasion called for it. I guess that's what happens when you live together for so long: you understand each other.

The ice creaked and groaned beneath us, busting up under the warring pressures of the tide and the wind and the sun. Tourists all freak out hearing that, but it's nothing to get worked up about. When the ice gives, it gives, and there's no use stressing about when. You still gotta get fish anyways. You'll never know from one day to the next whether the ice'll break out and clear the bay.

Turned out, today was one of those days.

With a crack like a gunshot, the ice snapped and tipped. My mouth dried up. My gloves turned into claws. I dug them deep into the snow. The snowmobile, having no claws, slipped slowly into the ocean. A burp of a bubble marked its final resting place. Wild gasps stretched my lungs, sending me dizzy. My heart struggled to escape my chest. What I would give to have legs that worked. No use wishing: my legs lay limp as liverwort.

The ocean's surface shattered in explosions of ice around me. Would they hear it, in the village? Would they run, knowing I was here?

The ice see'ed. And sawed. Swaying like crazy tops in the wash of the tumult. Please God, I thought, and nothing more: Please God. Please God.

Another crack. The ice slab beneath my hips broke away from the one my gloves were jammed into. Swearing a shrill, drawn-out scream, I watched my legs disappear into the water, my last remaining ice buoy tipping, tipping.

Teeth pincered into my wrist. I'd never been so damn glad to be bitten by a dog. Qimmiq, still on the safety of the fast ice, had my wrist as tight as a screw.

"Good boy, Qimmiq!" I blathered, giddy with fear and adrenalin.

The last of my ice gave way. The ocean all but swallowed me. His jaws spasmed tighter. Blood began to trickle down my wrist, warm and slow.

"Good boy!" I gasped, the cold of the water on my chest squeezing around my heart. His claws strained on the ice edge, biting into the ice. "Come on now, gee! haw!"

Would he remember? Would he remember when I'd tied him to my toboggan as a puppy, and tried to make him answer to his sled dog roots? His eyes bored into mine, looking for the answer.

"Gee! Haw!" I whispered, snatching the breath from between shattering teeth. The cold closed around my heart. My throat clenched with crystals of frost.

The light of understanding sparked in Qimmiq's eyes. He tugged left, then right, hauling my water logged body up. Left, then right, and the ice edge scraped down the side of my face. Qimmiq tugged, and tugged, til I was beached on the snow with my boots dripped like flippers onto the water's surface.

"Good boy." I lay, panting, feeling the glorious hardness of the ice beneath me. "Good man, good boy." Qimmiq didn't let go.

When I looked up, I saw something strange in his eyes.

It wasn't the adoration of a dog for his master. It wasn't the love of a pack mate for his brother. It was something much older than that.

Blood lust.

How long had it been since we were the hunted as well as the hunters? When wolf and man had worked against each other rather than together?

Not long enough.

A primal growl started deep in Qimmiq chest. His tongue worked at my wrist, sucking at the blood. His jaws crushed down just that little bit further. I lay frozen, helpless, petrified, prey in the headlights of those ancient yellow eyes. I couldn't even feel the pain.

"Lorrie! Loorriie!" Cheyenne's scream broke through my trance. In an instant, my wrists lay on the snow, released, a red flower of blood blossoming around it, and Cheyenne's arms squeezed round my neck.

"You frikkin' idiot!" she bawled. "You're saturated! Didn't you hear the weather report? Ice is breaking out everywhere." Keelut's sharp barks echoed from the safety of the rocks. Quiet and dutiful, Cheyenne's snowmobile waited where she'd left it, on the frozen beach. Dad's pick-up, my wheelchair strapped into the tray, tore up the beach road spraying twin tails of sherbet sleet behind. "Let's get the fuck off this ice. Thank God for Qimmiq."

Qimmiq sat, paws neatly between haunches, tail dusting the ice. Attentive, obedient: the perfect dog. His eyes were as innocent as buttons now, though I wondered what lay behind. He panted politely, just a tiny flash of his white teeth catching the morning light. As Cheyenne dragged me to the rocks, I couldn't bring myself to let those teeth out of my sight.

"Qimmiq, come!" Cheyenne called, and the dog bounded through the snowdrifts, heading for the short cut back home. Keelut shot after him, like an arctic fox on the tail of a wolf, a white ghost and its creamy shadow. "Keelut!"

My cousin clicked her tongue in disapproval, but the dogs were gone.

AN: written for the August RG WCC. (link in my profile) Find the other entries through the link and vote for your favourite from the 7th-14th. :)