The young boy, maybe a teenager - it was hard to tell with his tattered furs flapping and wild unkempt hair blowing around his head – made slow progress across the uneven tundra. He had never ventured this far from the encampment before on his own and, truth be told, he was a little afraid. The daylight was fading rapidly and still he could not see the lights of the fires that would have been lit to cook the food the gatherers would have hunted and killed today. The very thought had his stomach growling noisily with hunger.
It was an animal that had drawn the boy’s attention in the first place; small, furry and very fast on its paws. It had brown, soft-looking fur, large brown eyes that showed neither fear nor aggression. Its long thin tail wagged back and forth in a funny, pleasing manner. The boy had been on hunts before and had helped bring food to the encampment, but he had never encountered anything like the strange, friendly-seeming animal he was following.
The animal had allowed the boy to get unusually close to it before it ran off. The boy had laughed delightedly as the animal ran ahead some distance, stopped, looked behind itself as though checking to see that the boy was following, before continuing. So enraptured had the boy been that he had been led out of sight of the encampment before he realised quite how far he had gone. He had watched the animal run into a dense stand of tall, dark trees then promptly lost sight of it. He had unsuccessfully searched for the animal for much longer than he should have, he realised, when the warmth in the air become very much cooler.
The boy found his way to the edge of the trees and stopped dead. He could not recall a single distinctive feature on the landscape that would tell him where he was in relation to where he had entered the trees. The entire area was as featureless and barren in one direction as it was in the other. The boy’s delighted mood began to diminish as rapidly as the failing light. He remembered that the sun was in front of him when he spotted the strange animal so decided to head in the opposite direction to find his way back to the encampment.
When the light began to become darkness after the sun dipped below the horizon, the boy began to question his choice. He felt that he had been walking long enough to have reached the encampment, so why was it not in view yet? Real fear was not a problem yet, but it was bubbling just below the surface. The boy knew that danger lurked out here in the dark on his own.
He had heard the gatherers talking around the fires at night, their gruff voices oddly comforting as he lay down to sleep. He listened to their tales of hunts they had been on and the dangers they had faced and overcome. He listened to their uneasy laughter, too, as they told fanciful tales of mysterious beasts that only came out in darkness, beasts that howled and cried and filled the air with awful, terrible sounds that struck fear into the hearts of the bravest of the gatherers; beasts that could tear a man into pieces in moments before he had a chance to cry out. Grizzled heads with matted beards nodded sagely in agreement that they, too, had heard those tales and questioned the wisdom of anybody foolhardy enough to venture away from the safety of the encampment when the sun died.
When the last of the light slipped out of the sky and blackness enveloped the boy, he shivered with cold – and fear. Lost and alone and with the encampment nowhere in sight, the boy had never felt his youth and lack of experience as keenly as he did at that moment. The tales he had heard filled his head, and as hard as he tried to not think about them, they would not leave him. He called out for help repeatedly, but there was no answering response. Tears of fear and frustration pricked his eyes and, listen, wasn’t that that the sound of an animal howling in the distance?
Author Notes: The sequel 'Sunrise' is also published