Incredibly, he was reaching for his second axe.
"No!" Torak whispered hoarsely. "You'll only hurt her and get us both killed!"
The hunter wrenched the axe from his belt.
Torak thought swiftly. If the axe found its mark, the auroch would be unstoppable. But if she was startled instead of wounded, maybe she would merely make a mock charge, and flee with her calf. He had to get her out of range of that axe, fast.
Taking a deep breath, he jumped up and down, waving his arms and yelling, "Over here! Over here!"
It worked - in a way. The auroch gave a furious bellow and charged at Torak - and the axe hit the mud where she'd stood a heartbeat before. As she splashed toward Torak, he threw himself behind an oak tree.
No time to climb it-she was almost upon him. He heard her grunt as she heaved herself up the bank-he felt her heat on the other side of the tree trunk. . . .
At the last moment she swerved, flicking up her tail and blundering off into the Forest, her calf galloping after her.
The silence when she'd gone was deafening.
Sweat poured down Torak's face as he leaned against the oak.
The hunter stood with his head down, rocking from side to side.
"What were you doing?" panted Torak. "We could've been killed!"
The hunter did not reply. Lurching across the stream, he retrieved his axes and stuck them in his belt, then shambled back again. Torak still couldn't see his face, but he took in the hunter's muscled limbs and jagged slate knife. If it came to a fight, he'd lose. He was just a boy, not even thirteen summers old.
Suddenly the hunter stumbled against a beech tree and began to retch.
Torak forgot his alarm and ran to help him.
The hunter was on hands and knees, spewing up yellow slime. His back arched - he gave a convulsive heave - and he spat out something slippery and dark, the size of a child's fist. It looked . . . it looked like hair.
A gust of wind stirred the branches, and in a shaft of sunlight Torak saw him clearly for the first time.
The sick man had yanked handfuls of hair from his scalp and beard, leaving patches of raw, oozing flesh. His face was crusted with thick honey-colored scabs like birch canker. Slime bubbled in his throat as he spat out the last of the hair - then sat back on his heels, and began scratching a rash of blisters on his forearm.
Torak edged backward, his hand moving to his clan-creature skin: the strip of wolf fur sewn to his jerkin. What was this?
Renn would know. "Fevers," she'd once told him, "are most common around Midsummer, because that's when the worms of sickness have longest to work: creeping out of the swamps during the white nights when the sun never sleeps." But if this was a fever, it was unlike any Torak had ever seen.
He wondered what he could do. All he had was some coltsfoot in his medicine pouch. "Let me help you," he said shakily. "I have some . . . Ah no, stop! You're hurting yourself!"
The man was still scratching, baring his teeth as people do when the itching is so unbearable that they'd rather turn it into outright pain. All at once, he dug in his fingernails and savaged the blisters, leaving a swathe of bloody flesh.
"Don't!" cried Torak.
With a snarl, the man sprang at him, pinning him down.
Torak stared up into a mass of crusted sores; into two dull eyes filmed with pus. "Don't-hurt me!" he gasped. "My name-is Torak! I'm-Wolf Clan, I-"
The man leaned closer. "It-is-coming," he hissed in a blast of putrid breath.
Torak tried to swallow. "What-is?"
The cankered face twisted in terror. "Can't you see?" he whispered, flecking Torak with yellow spit. "It is coming! It will take us all!"
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness #2: Spirit Walker, Copyright © 2006 by Michelle Paver. All Rights Reserved. HarperCollinsPublishers.
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