And then they were running. Out onto the ledge, along the track and down onto the slope, then tumbling sliding skidding falling over the bare rock and ice with the voice of the dark roaring all around them so that the cliffside shook with it and they fell again, grasping at the rock, at each other, cursing and kicking out, as if tumbling off the edge of the world. Someone grabbed at his leg and he thrust them away, another punched him in the mouth and he struck out at the empty air. Sometimes he was on his feet and sometimes he was crawling on all fours, and sometimes he was turning and rolling over and over with not one part of him that was not scratched and bruised and cut by thorn and jagged stone. And then it was as if the world had indeed flung them away and they were falling headlong into some deep abyss with cries such as he had never heard before, and his own like the cry of some stranger pulled raw from his throat.
They were a long time falling.
Then he was standing among trees, his hands pressed against rough bark of a trunk, leaning forward, gasping in the cold air, everything still dark about them, but they were not long resting before they were on the move again, terror pursuing them through that tangled woodland of branches that snagged and roots that tripped and ground uneven with sudden hollows and dips and all the time sloping steeply down, so that his ankles jarred and twisted as he ran and his lungs were like bloody rags flapping inside his chest until he felt that he could go on no longer, but he did, as did the others, and it seemed to them all that there would be no end to it.
But at last there came a pale light and they could make out the shapes of the trees through which they ran, and of each other running through the trees. He recognised their faces, knew them by name. There were glimmerings of a dull red light among the branches ahead, then shafts and strands of brighter sunlight slanting down through the higher branches of the trees. Sneak ran close beside him to his left and to his right and just a little further ahead ran Shafter. Behind Sneak ran Fool, and one of the Gotcher Brothers ran beside Shafter and the other was running close behind Tusk, further off through the trees ahead. All carried their spears as he did himself and he wondered how they hadn’t lost them in their fall through the dark. Then that thought became confusing to him and he shook it away as his heart lightened with the gladness of the coming of the day.
They ran on through the mist of early morning that glittered with sparks of frost, and he was no longer tired or breathless and ran easily over the ground, which still sloped down though more gently now, all of them feeling that same strength and freshness in their limbs, and they would have carried on if Tusk had not called out for them to stop.
They gathered and stood together with the light brightening around them in the woods, and looked around at where they stood and shook their heads.
“What we doing here?” said Sneak.
Shafter gave a loud laugh and made to say something, but then a puzzled look came into his face. He raised his spear towards the way they had come.
“We was up there,” he said.
“The cliff,” said one of the Brothers.
“The cave,” said the other.
They looked at each other, each waiting for his brother to go on, but it was Sneak who spoke instead.
“There was something there.”
Then they all felt it, the shadow of the thing that had sent them running, the fearful tumbling through the dark, but it was fleeting, tenuous, and even as their minds reached towards it, it faded, as the mist was fading from among the trees, and only the brightness of the morning remained.
“Well, whatever it was,” said Tusk, “it ain’t here.”
His voice had a good, clear, true sound to it, and made them all feel sure of themselves, strong in the world. And it was a world of earth and leaf and bark, the rich smell and warm taste of it in their mouths, of moss on the trees, of birdsong and chatter, the thickening of sap, the quickening of blood, and the woods luminous and they lit within them.
Then Tusk spoke again.
“And we are. And whatever this place is, I think we’ll have good hunting.”
He set off walking through the woods and they followed him, spread out among the trees, and as he went the lad saw how there were buds on the branches, that some of them were already opening, and that the ground he trod was no longer hard frozen but had a softness to it, a springiness underfoot. Then it came to him, and it came to them all, that this was no real cause for wonder, because they were hunters, strong in their power, and it was this same power bringing the woods to life around them.
Fool walked beside him. He turned to him, saw his face thin and sharp in the morning light, the shadow that had passed from them still marked upon his brow. His eyes were downcast, but when the lad spoke, he looked up.
“What is it?”
Fool shook his head.
Fool’s sullen appearance irritated him.
“Not right,” said Fool. “Not...”
His voice trailed off, indistinct, inconsequential, and the lad slapped him on the shoulder and laughed and walked away and on without him.
The birdsong increased. There were smells in the air, rich and earthy and musky, aromas they could not be identify and that heightened their senses and made them light-headed. It made them grin at each other, and call out, letting their voices ring magnificently through the woodland, and make sudden, sharp punches at the air with tightly closed fists and grunts of pleasure. He felt an excitement tightening under his skin and in the pit of his stomach, a delicate tuning of his senses to the new landscape through which he moved, so that now every nerve in his body was alert to the morning and what it would bring.
The ground was rising, and now it rose more steeply and they were climbing uphill. Above and ahead of them they could see the top of the hill clearly through the trees and when they came there and stood at the top they found themselves looking down a grassy slope with yellow-flowered bushes and others with long stems and broad leaves spread like green fingers lifting towards the sun. The day was in its strength and the air was clear and fresh and joyous. And below them was a wide, bright valley with a river running through it and the valley was filled with animals.
For a time they stood without speaking, taking in what they saw. The valley was enclosed by wooded slopes and the river flowed through the middle of it and was lined with trees along both banks. On either side of the trees were meadows of long grass. The waters of the river shone in the sunlight and a breeze drifted up from the valley and brushed their faces with the smell of things growing, the scent of living beasts.
It was the Gotcher Brothers who spoke first.
“Do you see them?”
“I see them.”
“We all see them,” said Sneak.
Close by the river a small herd of deer stood with heads erect, tails and ears twitching, and they could see the living shine of the light on their smooth coats. Along the banks of the river itself a pair of large brown otters sported together, chasing in circles, then rolling on top of each other before one leapt away and slid into the water, and the other followed. Upstream from where the otters swam a large, shaggy coated bull with wide curved horns pushed its broad muzzle into the water, and even from where he stood the lad could hear the sloshing sound it made as it drank from the river and see his breath steaming off the surface. Further off a herd of wild pigs snuffled through the long grass.
Now the more they looked the more animals they saw. As if the beasts were emerging out of the valley itself. Squirrels ran up and down the trunks of the trees along the riverbanks. Rabbits skittered through the grass. Two wolves came trotting out of the trees on one of the far slopes. A large spotted cat lay along a fallen log, stretching out its paws and scratching at the bark.
“It’s like the old time.”
It was Shafter who had spoken and all felt the truth of it. The lad felt a love well up in his chest as he saw Shafter’s face flushed and with a light in his eyes that he felt shining in his own.
“Let’s go down there,” said Tusk.
They moved down the slope towards the valley. He felt a hand placed on his arm and he turned and there was Fool.
“What?” he said.
“This isn’t happening,” said Fool.
“It feels to me like it’s happening,” he said.
“Or if it is happening,” said Fool, “it’s not what it seems. It’s something else.”
He pulled away from Fool, from the lost and troubled look in his face.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Like Shafter said. The old time come again.”
As they came to the bottom of the slope and entered the valley they slowed their pace and went cautiously, approaching the animals step by step. The creatures appeared unconcerned by their presence among them, lifting their heads occasionally to sniff the air and regard them with some curiosity, then turning away and going back about their business. Soon they stood close by the river. The herd of deer were directly ahead. A large buck with broad antlers stamped a hoof and shook its head then stood still, looking at them. The rest of the herd were nibbling at the grass.
“I’m itching to kill me one of them animals,” said Shafter.
“Go on, then,” said Tusk. “Take first kill.”
Shafter grinned then made a step forward. He lifted his spear and took his aim along it. As if this was some kind of expected signal the rest of the deer in the herd raised their heads and looked up towards the people come into the valley. And in that valley all movement stilled. The lad heard the breeze rustling in the grass and the in leaves of the trees, he heard the chuckering of the water over the stones in the riverbed. His feet rooted themselves into the earth. Then there came a soft explosion of breath close by and Shafter’s spear flew from his hand and pierced the buck’s throat. The buck jerked with the impact, remained standing for a moment, then shuddered and dropped and lay with its legs folded underneath it, its head and neck slumped forward, its tail twitching. The spear hung down from its throat and dark blood ran down its flank. It all happened in silence.
Not a single creature moved. The lad felt as if he was watching everything from some other place far removed from this.
Then Tusk let out a wild, high-pitched cry, and they all ran forward, crying out after him, filling the valley with whoops and howls and screams. And then there was a great a slaughter of the animals.