I freeze and immediately think to get my gun, but these were killers naturally bred to attack the very second its prey moves. I remain to look the other way so I couldn’t see. Nathaniel!
‘Nathaniel…slowly…get the gun from my bag. It’s at the top.’
I feel his hands fumble around to open the bag, but the increasing sound of the wolves’ growl seem to make me count down the seconds till we are both eaten alive. Click! He lifts up the lid, feeling it brush the back of my head, but then I start to feel the dried blood from my leg. The blood! That’s what attracted them! My heart skips a beat. These things are here to hunt.
‘You need to shoot them, Nathaniel.’
‘We just scare them. We don’t need to kill them.’
‘Nathaniel, they can smell the blood. They’re going to rip me apart. Shoot them!’
I turn around for a quick second to see the wolves drawing in. A few are already walking onto the rope bridge, their pads careful of each step, maybe sensing the condition of the bridge, that only makes me more nervous, as it takes on more weight. I know Nathaniel must be thinking of the wolf pups. The largest of the wolves draws closer, baring its teeth and sticking out its pink tongue. We need to do something, but Nathaniel is frozen to the spot. I couldn’t bare it! The thought of wolves tearing me apart takes over. That’s it!
I snatch the gun from him and fire two shots at the wolf, one to the head and one to its chest. The pack start to back away a little, noting the death of their leader, but they soon come back to avenge the alpha. I remember Sky’s training. Don’t pause. Seconds count.
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! The pack lay before us, their blood dripping down from their wounds, down their legs, muzzles and tails and into the river. We had to move. We could be attracting a whole swarm of creatures, and I know that not all of them are your conventional forest animal.
I don’t think of Nathaniel, and I jump over the bodies and back to safe ground. The gun feels almost part of my hand, but then I feel a hand wrap around my gun and start to pull it away.
‘That’s enough!’ he growls. I look at him. His eyes are actually wide with anger, and I have to admit, he frightens me, especially with the gun now in his hand, but I try to remain the leader.
‘We could have been killed because of you!’ I snap, and wince at the pounding pain coming from my leg. I kneel down to inspect it, tearing my left trouser leg to the thigh, where an ugly scar stretches from my knee to the top of my thigh. I throw my bag to the side and take out the first aid kit. I have to be quick before more predators come. Nathaniel, still holding the gun, stands there, watching me. I think he’s debating whether to point the gun at me, much like I did to the wolves and earlier to him, in order to end me, like an animal. Instead, he sits down by me.
‘What is it?’
I follow his gaze and it’s only now I hear the loud whimpers and whines from the wolf pups that now start to reveal themselves from the bushes and walk towards the corpses of their family. They pay much attention to one body, the mother maybe, and push the mother’s muzzle with their own, hoping for a response. They bark. No, it’s not a bark. It’s a cry. It’s a No. They sit around the bodies of their dead family, whining, howling, crying, sobbing.
I try to ignore it by tending to my injury, but the howls seem too human, too much to simply ignore. I turn to the gun in Nathaniel’s hand – someone has to end the mourning. I think Nathaniel understands what I wanted and pushes the gun into his trousers, with just the butt showing. He shakes his head.
‘There’s a better solution, Ari, than killing people.’
‘They were never people.’
‘Maybe not, but that certainly looks like something people would do,’ and he looks back to the cubs. I can’t bear to look at the cubs, nor think of how they were going to survive without their parents. Nathaniel’s right, but wrong. Killing is wrong, Sky always told me that, but what kind of life is going to face those cubs, especially when the predator smell my blood and come towards this place.
‘What do you think we should do?’
The pubs are difficult at first to hold, I didn’t blame them, and we receive several bites from their small pincers, but we manage to control them. Nathaniel told me to talk to them with soothing words and soon they succumb to you. He is very good with animals. The cubs are heavier than they looked, like a small sack of potatoes or a fully grown watermelon. I look to Nathaniel as we walk through the forest towards home, a wide smirk across his face. Maybe it’s because he is actually right and I’m wrong.
‘Guessing you like animals?’
‘Yeah, me and my mum breed dogs. Our dog Pippa has already had five litters,’ he explains proudly.
‘Wow.’ I remember Pippa now. A lively golden retriever that wandered into our garden as a pup and dig up Sky and Sophie’s plants on a regular basis. It’s the reason we now have a front garden, so at least Sophie could keep an eye on the plants from the kitchen.
‘Do you think people will want wild wolf cubs?’
‘Wolves actually make very good pets, contrary to popular belief. They’re good hunting dogs.’ After this, I could only think of one person who would want a hunting dog. Lokin. I still feel the guilt that I am the reason these puppies are orphans and….I hear something. Something in the distance.
‘Do you hear that?’ I lift my hand for silence, and now hear distant chatter, from a crowd maybe. People talking. Getting closer, I see several spots of light linger like floating lanterns, but when we move closer, they turn out to be torches, electronic and fire lit. What happened while we were gone?
I move forward, leaving Nathaniel behind, until I’m out in the open. I stop and stand before a mob, and I hear Nathaniel stop behind me. I turn to him, who looks more confused than I am. I look back and see Sophie reveal herself from the angry crowd. She looks at me in sheer horror.
‘WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY DAUGHTER?!’ She screams. I step forward, but then my heart stops, realising what this whole thing must look like from their point of view. I am covered in bite marks, sweat, blood speckles all over me from the wolves, and my torn trouser leg. I look to Nathaniel, who seems untouched, aside from the old speckles of blood but nothing to worry about. Oh the gods, it seems like I am running away from him, my pursuer. I turn to the crowd now.
‘Mum, this isn’t what it looks like!’ I beg.
‘Arianna, get away from him!’ she yells, ‘get away from him NOW!’
I look around the angry crowd until I spot Lokin near the back, holding a flaming torch. He only shakes his head and looks down at the ground. He must know Nathaniel wouldn’t do such a thing, but why didn’t he say anything? I turn back to the crowd again.
‘Wait, I-’ but I am pulled away by Sophie. I quickly turn back to Nathaniel, who hands over the other wolf cub to me before I dissolve into the angry mob, but then he is pulled away from me by two men and is moved back towards the mouth of the forest. He didn’t seem to struggle! Why is he doing this? Was he punishing himself? But for what reason? Lokin finally comes to my side, the only face I want to see other than Nathaniel’s. He looks to the pups, and then to me.
‘Give me the pups, you need to deal with this, Arianna.’
‘But, Lokin, I can’t –’
‘Find your bloody voice, girl!’ It’s the first time Lokin swears at me. The first time I’ve seen him angry. He takes the pups, like they are bags of feathers. They seem to warm to him -
‘Silence! Silence!’ a man cries from behind me. Everyone turns as the mob is slowly split in half. I watch with everyone else as the mayor of Kiloft, accompanied by his advisors, steps through the crowd towards the front to face Nathaniel square on. His silver hair is hidden under his blue hat, and from his neck hangs the medallion all mayors have worn for the past few hundred years. I watch him and stand on my tiptoes, almost feeling like a simple viewer who wants to watch the show. Small growls to kill Nathaniel murmur, some agree. The mayor stops before Nathaniel, stares at him for a moment. Maybe he couldn’t believe it either, but then he turns to address the crowd:
‘People of Kiloft, I am here to decide to fate of Nathaniel James Stark.'
‘GUILTY!’ a person cries, and the mob murmurs in agreement.
‘Now, now, we must be reasonable! We have little evidence against him!" Lokin suddenly cries, shoving people out of the way. He addresses the crowd, his face clear of nerves. 'He's a twelve year old boy! Next you'll be saying that my little boy is staging some sort of coup d'etat! Leave the boy alone!'
'But people saw Nathaniel following Arianna into the woods. Now she is here, covered in blood!’
‘Come on, everyone knows Nathaniel. Why would he do something like that?'
'Clearly, you haven't read his journal!' a woman cries from the back of the crowd.
'You what?' Nathaniel suddenly cries. The woman walks towards the front of the crowd, a small book in hand. I watch in horror. This is pure humiliation.
'We went to his house when we found out that he had followed her into the woods. He talks of his obsession of her, his want to be around her.'
I couldn't believe this, but it is there in plain black and white. Maybe they're making it up, maybe they were attempting to find any form of evidence to take him down, but why? Is it because of Nathaniel's reputation as a loner? There are plenty of loners that do not receive this kind of reaction. Lokin watches the woman read from the journal. I narrow my eyes, as Lokin looks away, as if changing his mind about the whole affair. The woman carries on until the mayor stops her with a raise of his hand.
'While we have little supporting evidence, there shall be a trial starting Sunday afternoon,' and Nathaniel is dragged away along with the mayor. I watch as crowd spit at Nathaniel, throw objects at him and attempt to tear him apart with their bare hands.
‘No!’ I cry, but my cries are flooded out by the mob. Maybe they think I’m in some sort of shock. ‘It’s not all my blood! Stop! Everyone! (I turn to my mother) Mum, it’s not all my blood. It is mine on my leg but that wasn’t him. Why isn't anyone listening to me?'
Why isn't anyone listening to me?
‘Honey, you’re just in shock.’
‘He didn’t do anything!’
‘Arianna! We saw you run out of the woods covered in blood with Nathaniel running behind him! He wrote those strange things about you. He's clearly obsessed.'
'Did you read it?'
'No, but...Arianna, why would they lie to me?' she questions. 'I shouldn't have left you on your own.'
This is ridiculous. Why would no one listen to me? The key person in this trial. She knows I’m a fast runner, and if Nathaniel wanted to attack me, I would easily outrun him or fight him.
The trial lasted four days. I couldn't believe how long this would have took when clearly there is no evidence that Nathaniel had threatened to attack me. More and more people came up as witnesses, adding random anecdotes from their own experiences with Nathaniel in order to piece Nathaniel together as an obsessed lover attempting to kill me in an act of passion, but for the love of the gods, he's only twelve! I was not allowed to go near the courtroom, or near the place where Nathaniel was being held. I couldn't sleep. If I tried to leave, Sophie would stop me in my tracks. I was powerless.
The jury verdict is today, and I couldn't be any more nervous. I'm allowed to this session, but I have to keep out of Nathaniel's sight, by my mother's request. When we arrive, the crowd seem to cheer me, as if my arrival signifies some bravery that I will facing my almost killer. I look up at the trial house. It's one of the most impressive buildings, other than the mayor's home a mile north from the main village. Its walls are a blood red, with statues of justice in gold standing over the entrance made of marble. We are led through into a private area that looks above the courtroom, filled with people and barristers, and we are sat down. This seems like more of a show than a trial. I look to Sophie, who keeps her hand around mine.
'Mum, please, Nathaniel is innocent.'
'You didn't hear the evidence that was given over the past four days.'
'Mum, he's twelve!'
'Honey...I just want you to be safe.'
The crowd starts to growl in anger as Nathaniel is brought into the room, announced by the opening of the double doors by the defendant's box, handcuffed and dressed in his normal clothes. His hair is scruffy, and his eyes look glazed and bloodshot. He looks older than a twelve year old now. He is sat in the defendant's box, ignoring the horrific shouts from the crowd. I blink my eyes twice, hoping I wake up in my bag or maybe in the tent back at the woods. I hear another door opening, and see the mayor approach then sit at the bench. The court rises at his arrival. The mayor clears his throat and looks to the ground.
‘In the last four days, the jury has been presented with much evidence in this case in order to make a decision. Jury, have you reached a verdict?'
I look to the left of the bench, where the jury box is. A man in a grey suit stands up, holding a piece of paper in his hand.
'We have, your honour, we find the defendant guilty.'
The crowd jump with excitement, but they would have been just as ecstatic, if not more, if an execution was to taken place.
'Due to the boy's age, Nathaniel James Stark will be sent to the juvenile correction facility until he reaches the age of eighteen. But due to the severity of this case, you, Nathaniel James Stark, shall be banned for life from Kiloft.'
‘NO! NO, NATHANIEL!’
Sophie drags me back further away and out of the room, and leads me to the entrance. She sits me on the front steps like I’m a rag doll. Tears float out of me; snot dribbles down from my nose and into my mouth. I sob wildly, tapping my hands against my ears. I must look mad. I couldn’t change anyone’s minds. If anyone looked, I may have been so relieved that my 'killer' is getting his just desserts.
What have I done? I have just destroyed Nathaniel’s life.