He had spent the night as watchful as he could be in the near-complete darkness. The boy had been afraid to fall asleep in case the strange animals he had heard howling and crying in the dark distance came for him. Pulling his furs tightly around his skinny, still-developing torso and curling himself into as small a ball as he possibly could he had laid down on the unforgiving stony ground and tried to find some rest.
It would not come to him. Every time he closed his eyes his fevered and terror-filled imagination painted gruesome images of huge wild and hairy beasts with massive fangs and claws tearing his scrawny body apart and eating him limb by limb.
He cursed himself for allowing that strange furry creature to take his attention the way it had. If he had been paying more attention to his surroundings and less to the animal he would not be out alone and lost on the cold plain at night, leaving himself vulnerable to attack by the very monsters that inhabited his imagination.
The boy shivered, as much from fear and loneliness as from the steadily falling temperature. Luckily it was the not-as-cold-time, when things in the ground started to grown again and new foods – foods that disappeared during the when-it-was not- warm time, began to reappear. Sometimes they were not nice foods and they made the boy and his kind sick, but when they knew about the sick-making foods they left them alone.
The boy’s stomach growled in hunger. He had not eaten since before the big-brightness part of the day had come. He had never been so hungry in his life! When he had realised that he was lost he had concentrated on trying to find his way back to the encampment. He was too distressed to think about food. When he had eventually ceased his wandering and decided to stay exactly where he was it was too dark to look for anything to eat anyway.
The boy regretted his foolhardiness in chasing the animal and hot tears of self-pity began to slip down his face. He did not wipe them away or try to stop them. There was nobody to see or hear him crying anyway. He was completely alone.
At least, he was completely alone.
The boy became aware that there was someone or something out there, not far away from where he was sitting – and it was drawing closer. Alarmed, the boy jumped to his feet, adrenaline coursing through his body as his instincts urged him to flee.
But where to run?
All of the tales he’d heard the gatherer’s tell about man-eating beasts flooded back to the boy as he stood indecisively trying to decide in which direction to flee. His bladder suddenly felt very heavy and his bowels watery as he became paralysed with abject terror. What was the point in running as there was nowhere to run to and in the darkness it was possible he might do himself more harm by tripping over something or actually running towards whatever it was that was coming to get him!
The boy cried out, as much from frustration as from fear. Then he heard a strange sound, a sound that was more pitiful than terrifying: a mewling, whimpering, as though the creature that was making it was also afraid. It was coming from directly in front of him. What was this?
The boy had never encountered any animal that was afraid of him and his kind. He had not heard of such a thing either. Puzzled and intrigued now, the boy stood very still and waited for his heartbeat to return to normal and his breathing to slow. As he began to calm himself he sensed the mysterious creature cautiously approaching him.
It brushed against his bare legs and a sound of surprised delight escaped the frightened boy. It was the unusual animal that had drawn him away from the encampment earlier! It brushed itself against the boy’s legs, the warmth and softness of its fur reassuring the boy that it meant him no harm. He stood stock still and allowed the creature to continue to brush against him, enjoying the comforting feeling it gave him.
Now that his fear had given way, the adrenaline that had urged him to run drained away and the boy was left feeling suddenly very weary. He sank to his haunches, then sat heavily upon the hard ground again. The furry animal leapt into the boy’s lap and settled itself there, its tail wagging back and forth. The boy uttered a sound that approximated laughter. He tentatively laid a hand on the animal’s fur and heard the creature make a sound that sounded like it enjoyed the feeling. A smile spread across the boy’s face. This was the most unusual creature he had ever come across in his young life. What a story he would have to tell when he got back to the encampment!
If he got back to the encampment.
The boy’s smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. Yet again he had been distracted by the furry animal that was now lying in his lap. Instead of thinking about how he was going to find his way back to the encampment he had allowed the animal to take his mind away from those important thoughts… but he could not be annoyed with himself of the animal.
He was too tired and had been too afraid for too long. The animal had brought him a measure of comfort and, yes, companionship. The boy felt tears prick his eyes again, but this time they were tears of gratitude and thankfulness. The animal stirred in his lap, as though it was sensing the boy’s mood. The boy unconsciously stroked its back, which made it make that odd, pleasant noise again. The smile returned to the boy’s face.
He continued to stroke the furry animal until his eyes grew too heavy to keep open a moment longer. As carefully as he could without disturbing the animal the boy lay himself down on the ground and closed his eyes. With the comforting sound the animal was making and the warmth of its closeness to him the boy found asleep at last.
When the light came again the boy emptied his bladder and bowels before deciding on which direction to take to try and find his way back to the encampment. The last time it had been light he had walked away from the sun, which had not helped him find his way back. This time he decided to walk towards the brightness in the hope that it would be the right direction to take.
In the daylight, the animal that had stayed with the boy through the night looked even less threatening. Its light-brown was long and silky-looking and its wagging tail was misshapen where it had been damaged somehow. The creature’s eyes were large and friendly when they looked at the boy. It followed him as he began his quest to find his way back to the encampment, walking a little behind the boy to begin with, then alongside him after a short time.
The sun rose higher in the sky and got warmer and warmer. The boy’s stomach growled repeatedly, but it was the thirst that was harder to cope with. The ground in every direction was mostly flat with very little vegetation. The only source of water in the area was where the encampment had been set-up. In his mind the boy could hear the bubbling sound the water made as it ran over the stones and his mouth salivated as it imagined the cool refreshing feel and taste of it in his mouth.
The strange animal was also suffering from the heat and lack of water. Its long pink tongue lolled from its panting mouth and, like the boy, it had slowed its walking pace. The heat was energy-sapping and without food or water to sustain boy or beast, the unlikely pair were suffering.
The boy wanted to stop walking and rest. His eyes hurt from the brightness of the sun and his feet hurt from walking the stone-littered hard ground, the animal skins on his feet almost worn through. He had discarded his biggest and thickest fur some time ago as it was too big and too warm to carry. The boy began to wonder if he had made the wrong choice again.
Too weary now to take another step he stopped dead. The animal stooped too. Weak, tired and hungry, the brightness of the sun seemed too intense to bear a moment longer. The boy closed his eyes, felt his head swim unpleasantly and fell to ground in a dead faint. The strange animal mewled in alarm as it sniffed and licked the unconscious boy’s face. When there was no response from the boy it lay down beside him and rested its head on its paws, watching and waiting.
They came upon him not very much later. Two parties of gatherers had set off at first light to search for the missing boy, heading in opposite directions. No-one had seen the boys leave the encampment so nobody had any idea in which direction he had gone. It was a matter of guesswork and luck as to whether either party would come across the boy. Both parties had set out in the belief that if they did find him it would be his remains they found.
A loud shout went up from the led gatherer when he came upon the peculiar sight of the unconscious boy and the brown-furred animal that was now sitting next to him. The man made threatening and aggressive gestures at the animal in a bid to frighten it away but it did not move. Another picked up some stones and skilfully aimed them at the animal. Several hit their target, but still the animal remained at the boy’s side.
This was an entirely new experience for the group of men and they were perplexed. Never before had they seen such behaviour from any animal they hunted. One of the group suggested spearing the creature and another agreed. However, a big bearded man with a mane of greying matted hair and bright blue eyes clearly the leader of the group - forestalled them. He suggested that as the animal had apparently not done the boy any harm and appeared to be protecting him it was unlikely that it would cause any harm to them either. He volunteered to approach the boy on his own.
The animal looked warily at the man approached, its tail down low and ticking left to right. Its muscles were tense as it prepared to flee should it sense and threat from the man approaching. The creature had fought its natural instincts to flee when the stones had hit it, but his attachment to the boy had proved to be a stronger pull. Now, though, he was on alert.
The big man sensed the animal’s tenseness. An experienced hunter he knew that any animal posed a major threat if it was cornered or felt threatened. However, the small furry animal in front of him seemed as much afraid of him as he was cautious of it. Step by slow step the man drew closer to the prostrate boy, who had not moved or made a sound since the group had come upon him.
The animal stood and flicked its tail tentatively from side to side as the big man came up to it. When he offered his hand for the animal to sniff it licked his fingers. The man uttered a guttural grunt of pleasure and amusement and called over to the rest of the group to come and see the odd creature while he attended to the boy.
Refreshed and none the worse for his unexpected adventure the boy sat on a pile of dried grass and allowed the furry creature to lick his face. Its tail wagged furiously as the boy stroked and tickled its back and belly. The animal had been the talk of the encampment when it had followed the group who had found the boy back there and refused to be shooed away. Every one of the several dozen members of the tribe had come to see and marvel at this strange friendly little animal. Only a brave few had ventured close enough to actually touch it, though. One young woman even fainted dead away when she saw how affectionate the boy was with the creature.
The boy asked the big man with the beard, wild hair and bright blue eyes what the creature was. The man made a noise that the boy had never heard before. It sounded very much like the big man said ‘dog’…