A shrill whistle pierced the silence in the valley, echoing into the hills.
“Grell,” Tarik cried as he got to his feet. His normally golden skin was looking more tanned than usual, the result of several days traveling through the plains. Grell had been following his missing sister’s scent, and still, there was no sign of Reena. “Grell,” he called again, offering up a second whistle.
The animal in question, heeding her master’s summons, came galloping through the lush greenery there, her ears flapping out behind her and her tongue lolling to one side. She had taken the opportunity of Tarik’s recess in his travels to seek out some interesting smells to roll in.
As he waited for his hound to reach his side, Tarik shook the dried grass from his clothing and ran his hand through his coal-black hair. He was tired. Days of pursuing his sister and her abductors had brought him close to the point of exhaustion, but he knew for Reena’s sake that he could not give up.
She was all that he had left, the majority of his family, including his tentative mate, having been taken from him by winter like no other that they had known. Many of those in his tribe who had not succumbed to the cold had become malnourished and preyed upon by illness.
The herds had suffered as well, dwindling to almost half the size that it had been. The whole situation had left Reena and Tarik in a very awkward position, not having much in the way of status within the tribe, to begin with. Now, unless he could come up with the resources to pay the dowry for a higher status mate, Tarik would have no one, and that would mean no children either.
All of that meant little to him at the moment, however. What was important was finding and retrieving Reena. He had followed Grell blindly as she had tracked his sister’s scent, and now they were in some strange valley in a place where he had never been before. Few of the Reindeer People ever left the plains for any reason. Tarik might even be the first of his kind to have ever ventured into this valley.
Tarik reached into his satchel and withdrew the swatch of brushed leather infused with Reena’s scent. He had brought that along in order to prompt Grell whenever she paused in her tracking, be it to rest, to eat, or merely because of some unwanted distraction.
She didn’t chase small rodents and would abandon the hunt for Tarik’s sister if the opportunity presented itself. Glancing into his pack, Tarik felt his stomach churn a little. He was not much of a hunter, and his supplies were wearing thin. From what he had left, it looked like they might last three days at the most.
If he had not managed to find Reena by then, he would have to take time off from the pursuit to restock, and that might cause him and Grell to lose her trail altogether. He could not bear the notion that this might happen. He had already come so far, hoping to find her and bring her home, and if he were forced to give up the chase, he would be left with nothing – nothing, that is, other than Grell.
Tarik stared at the terrain before them. Aside from some low-lying brush, their path through the valley itself was clear, and would likely take a few minutes travel.
On the far edge of the valley, however, there lay a forest, something that seemed quite alien to the plains-dwelling man. There was the odd tree in the sub-temperate tundra where the Reindeer People lived, but what was there usually did not exceed the height of a man, stunted and weather-beaten.
The trees at the other side of the valley loomed before him like menacing giants, thick, dark, and shadowy. The sight of them made Tarik nervous, but he suspected that the men who had taken his sister had originated from somewhere within that forest, and like it or not, he would have to make his way there in order to retrieve her.
Grell and Tarik had only made it approximately halfway across the valley, towards the woods, when something caught his eye – a grayish-white streak, appearing quite small from this distance, moving rapidly along the base of the trees.
Tarik did some mental calculations, however, taking into consideration the size of the things relative to the faintly coloured blur and realized that whatever creature was moving that fast was likely more than twice his height. He had to wonder what sort of mutant animals must live in that forest. Perhaps, he considered, it was some form of a giant bear. That was when Grell began to bark and dashed forward.
“Grell! No! Back!” Tarik commanded, but the dog did not listen. As she lunged forward, snapping and snarling, the pale figure at the far end of the valley froze in place. Grell had managed to draw its attention, and now it was observing them. The herdsman became aware that the beast had yet to lower itself to all fours, which it likely would have done by now, had it been a simple animal.
No – whatever it was that he was looking at appeared to move around normally upright, and on two feet. He was certain it was no man, so what then, exactly, was it?
Tarik took a few steps towards it, whistling for his hound this time. While she was willing to ignore his shouts, the piercing sound tapped into instinct, and she pulled up short, still growling in the direction of the unusual beast. The grayish-white creature had not moved since taking notice of them, and when it did suddenly swivel to face them, some part of the beast caught the sun’s glare sharply, like the gleam of smooth, sheer ice.
Tarik blinked and turned his head away for a few seconds, briefly blinded. He whistled again, and Grell came to him, but the creature began to move in their direction as well, emitting a strange keening noise. The eerie sound, almost as much a whine as it was a growl, caused shivers to run up and down the herdsman’s back.
His dog noticed the noise as well, and her aggressive stance suddenly changed to one of fear, her snarls turning to whimpers, her hackles settling, and her tail now tucked between her legs.
Tarik pulled his knife from his sheath, the one that Reena had helped him make. He had constructed the blade from chiseled bone, and assembled the hilt from reindeer antler and leather bindings, but she had engraved the images on it that decorated it and that made it more than just a simple tool or weapon. He glanced down at the puny knife.
Despite all of the love that had gone into its manufacture, it would not be enough to counter the creature that was now headed his way. Tarik wanted to turn and run, but after seeing the speed with which the beast had been sprinting alongside the trees, he knew that this would be futile as well. They might keep ahead of it for part of the morning, but it would eventually catch up to them.
Grell would have little luck battling something that size as well. As far as Tarik could see, they were doomed, especially now that he could just barely make out its horrible gaping maw, filled with large needle-like teeth, and its terrible blade-like claws, the ones responsible for the blinding gleam.
That was when he heard the faint noise, barely audible over the strangely quiet wailing from the beast. It was coming from somewhere beyond the trees, and it was Tarik’s best guess that it originated from a child.
The herdsman was not sure why the young child was crying, certainly not as loud as it was, and whether it was out of pain or fear, but the sound was enough to draw the approaching creature’s attention away from Tarik and Grell. The monster hesitated, glancing back at the trees and then over at the herdsman and the hound again as if trying to make a decision.
As the volume of the child’s shrieking increased further, the monster seemed to yield to a stronger inclination than that created by the obvious flesh and blood meal within plain sight. There was something more appealing in the potential tender tidbit that screamed behind it. Abandoning its current target, it veered around again and charged back towards the forest.
As it disappeared from sight, Tarik fell to his knees, his trembling legs refusing to continue to support him. A fretful Grell leaned into him, licking his face and hands for comfort.
“It’s okay,” he assured her. “It’s gone. The spirits saw fit to bless us today. We should be thankful for such good fortune.”
With this in mind, it still took the herdsman several minutes to cease his shaking and find the strength to get back to his feet. Despite this recent turn of events, they still had a job to do, a very important job. He held out the swatch of leather to Grell to remind her of Reena’s scent. When it was clear that the hound had rediscovered his sister’s trail, he urged her forward, and they set out across the valley once again.