Telco shivered as he stood on the hilltop and watched the sun go down, his shadow and those of his two companions merging with that of the standing stone behind them. It was a shiver not only borne upon the chill air of the dying day and the snowflakes that brushed coldly upon his brow, but one that contained a frisson of fear and excitement in it. He wondered if Marco and Nella were shivering, too.
Marco, to his left, was younger and smaller than him. Nella was a little older than Telco and taller; he couldn’t help but feel jealous at the way in which she seemed to have no trouble moving through the deepening snow.
Together, they waited.
The days had grown steadily shorter and the nights longer over the past year and, now, here it was, the Long Night.
The final rays of the sun danced and sparkled upon the snow that carpeted the landscape and Telco shivered again, as the sun finally sank below the horizon, leaving just a dying red glow and, then, nothing but darkness. It was almost beautiful.
It was here. He had never experienced the Long Night before, had scarcely believed the tales his father told of it. Until this past year, night had only been a brief interlude demarcating one day from the next. Now, it would be their entire existence for three whole years.
Three whole years! If time could be said to pass during the seemingly-endless darkness. Telco found it hard to believe he would be a man when the sun next rose above the horizon to light the world again.
Beside him in the darkness, he could hear the soft sound of sobbing from Marco. Telco scarcely felt any braver himself and wondered if his companions could hear the hammering of his heart. Nella was silent.
Pushing his fear down as best he could, Telco sought the distant green glow that was to be their destination. There it was. The hold. Warmth and safety. His family waiting anxiously for him. Hoping, praying.
A distant sound like a howl punctuated into a rapid series of honks, brought him out of his reverie, a reminder that he might not make it to manhood nor feel the warm touch of the sun’s rays upon his skin again.
Light flashed as Nella opened her lantern and she was already away as he fumbled with his own.
The broken howl came again, so similar to the cry of the ovees, yet threatening, hateful. He needed to move.
Telco opened his lantern, at last, and warm orange light spilt out over the snow before him.
Move, he told himself, forcing his legs into action.
Without turning his head, he shouted to Marco, “Run!”
Now that he was running, all he could manage was a painfully-slow trudge down the hillside as the deep snow sucked at his feet with each step he made. It soon began to cake his legs, weighing them down, slowing him. If he lost his footing and tumbled down the hillside, he doubted whether he would ever recover his momentum before the lopers reached him.
From the laboured sounds of breathing behind him, it seemed as if Marco were having an even harder time. As much as Telco envied Nella’s longer limbs, he was grateful he had more years and inches than the boy. Would Marco have the speed and stamina to make it? Would he?
He couldn’t pause to ponder it, not if he wanted to have a chance at all of reaching the green light and safety.
He struggled on and, though he wore a scarf over his nose and mouth, the night air was harsh and burnt upon his lungs.
Telco felt himself flagging. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. The green light was so small and far away. He couldn’t do it.
He had to.
Failure meant only one thing, the brutal reality of their world when the sun turned its light away from them.
For fifteen years, they’d had light. Long, pleasant days that made the corn grow tall and the ovees grow fat. Fifteen years of feast. Fifteen years that were all he had known… till now.
Then, the nights would lengthen, and the ovees would grow thin and shaggy, their wool providing warm clothes and blankets for the darkness ahead. Stockpiling, ready for three years of famine.
Only those strong enough in both body and will were deemed worth feeding through the long night, the weak deemed an unnecessary burden. Only those children who survived the Run would be given a chance to join the healthy adults in the holds until the sun returned. If you couldn’t survive the first hours of the Night, you would never survive the deepest darkness.
Tears stung his eyes and froze on his cheeks.
Telco thought of his mother and father. He wasn’t going to make it, would never see them again… another victim of the Run.
But, while the custom might be called the Run, in reality, it was more of a stumble or a stagger, a desperate battle for movement.
If the cloying snow didn’t wear him down so that the cold could penetrate his heart and bones, the lopers would seize him and devour him. He could never outrun them–and their howls were oh-so-very close…
He had to try!
As long as he could outdistance Marco, he would be okay. That was what everyone had told him–the lopers always went for whoever had the misfortune to be at the back, the smallest and weakest.
“Nature’s way,” his father said.
He tried not to think of what that meant for Marco.
Yes, the cries of the lopers were definitely drawing near. The broken howls were so like those of the ovees, a taunting mockery of comfort. What had been mere bogeymen of his childhood were suddenly very real, the transformation of the surviving herds complete Now that night had fallen, the once-gentle animals vicious killers until the sun returned and they became docile once more.
Behind him, Telco heard the splash of something landing heavily in snow.
Marco had fallen.
Telco could hear the boy thrashing, struggling to stand.
He ignored the sound, pressed on. Heard Marco shrieking in terror.
Telco couldn’t do it. He couldn’t leave him.
It was against all the laws of the Run, but he just couldn’t abandon him.
Weakness. He didn’t deserve to survive. Yet, he knew he would never forgive himself if he just abandoned Marco…
With a curse, Telco turned and stumbled back to where Marco lay, wishing the howls of the lopers didn’t sound so close. The boy’s lantern was gone, snuffed out. The darkness seemed very black with just the one to light it.
“Here.” Telco seized Marco by the arm and dragged him to his feet, began to pull him along with him.
Ignoring the boy’s sobs of thanks, Telco trudged on as fast as he could in the direction of the green light, following what he hoped was the course of the stream in which they had swum and fished in in happier, brighter times. The snow clung to his legs, threatening to drag him down into its icy embrace, just as it had seized Marco, and he felt as if it were pulling him back, holding onto his legs until the lopers could seize them, feast upon their flesh.
Marco only made it worse, a weight that he had to drag along. Telco could only imagine what his father would say of his foolishness in going back for the boy.
All the more reason not to fail, now, he thought and, with a mighty cry, he practically flung himself forwards, dragging the boy after him, tearing his booted feet free of the snow, but very nearly losing his balance in the process.
They had to do it!
Was the green light any closer? Telco’s heart felt as if it skipped a beat as, for a moment, he thought he had lost it. Then, he saw it again. There! Yes, surely it was closer…
The green light was all that guided their way: In the narrow field of his lantern’s light, the landscape looked always much the same, its outlines and contours obscured by the snow, save for the occasional jagged tip of a rock.
How alien the world must seem, he thought, when the Night was at its deepest and the unrelenting snow piled high.
A howl brought his mind back to the present and the burning pain in his calves.
The green light might be nearer, but the loper was nearer still, very near–too near.
Telco shone his light about, but couldn’t see it. Then again, would he? Thin and sleek, with a dense covering of white fur, lopers were bound to be almost invisible against the fallen snow.
There was movement ahead of them. Nella.
Telco almost laughed. Despite the advantage of her long legs and having left them behind at the outset, it seemed she hadn’t made it that far ahead, after all.
Then, he spotted something else, a gangling creature loping silently towards her. Nella was oblivious to its presence.
He shouted her name, and she turned, just in time, throwing herself out of the way as it leapt. Only now, she was sprawled, helpless, in the snow.
Without thinking, Telco continued to shout. The loper looked towards him and Marco and began to move in long strides towards them.
Idiot, he cursed himself. In saving Nella, he had doomed Marco and himself.
And, he could see the green light, not that far away, they had been so close…
He coughed a bitter laugh, then made a decision.
Pushing Marco away, he shouted, “Run to Nella,” and began to move away, holding the light of his lantern on the loper, hoping that would keep its gaze fixed upon him.
Not that he had any idea what to do.
As Marco stumbled away, the creature loped towards Telco as if it knew he had no chance, that it could take its time, and still have plenty to hunt down the other two.
Looking past it, Telco thought he saw Marco pulling Nella to her feet and both of them heading for the green light. If he could just distract it for long enough, they might have a chance.
So much for the laws of the Run…
He returned his gaze to the loper, which continued to draw nearer.
Feeling oddly detached from the moment, Telco wondered if the beast had been one of the ovees he had tended and cared for when the sun shone. It seemed apt that it would be.
The loper stopped atop a jutting spur of black rock, not yet covered by the snow, and bared ice-white fangs at him.
Telco trembled. This was it. He could only hope the others made it.
Then, a sudden impulse took hold of him and, with a shrieking cry of rage and fear, he hurled his lantern at it.
The lantern flew through the air like a shooting star, then struck the rock and exploded in coruscating flames.
The loper let out a pained howl as the flames licked at it, kindling upon its fur, and leapt from the rock, down into the snow, seeking to extinguish the fire that threatened to engulf it.
As it writhed in the deep drift, mewling pitifully, Telco began to move as quickly as he could, straining against the pull of the snow, desperation driving him.
Please, let there be no more lopers here!
The green light was just ahead of him and, too, the warm glow of light from within; the gates of the hold were open a little.
“He’ll come,” he heard a voice say. “He’ll come.”
Nella. She was holding the gates open for him.
“It’s me,” he cried. “It’s me.”
Glancing back past the dying flames, he spied a thin and gangly shape loping away into the darkness.
Hands grabbed at him and pulled him inside, the gates slamming shut behind him.
He had made it. They had made it. They had survived the Run.
Just three more years to go…
DJ Tyrer is a writer, poet and the person behind Atlantean Publishing, as well as having been the nonfiction editor for Redsine in 2000/01 and co-editor of the two-part King in Yellow special of Cyaegha in 2014/15. Publication credits include a variety of anthologies, small press magazines, gaming magazines, chapbooks, two novellas and more. DJ Tyrer has worked in education, administration, retail, management and public relations and currently resides in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England, UK. Find them on Twitter (@DJTyrer) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/