These stories belonged, he knew, in the minds of the young and simple, and were not fed or watered by the hard reason of his adult mind, strong and secure in belief of the broken earth and of simple friendship. But nevertheless they took root, snarled under a stone, and began to grow, and then to thrive. The heavy darkness began to hide a multitude of unnatural and busy beings, all of whom were distinctly aware of the man’s presence and wanted, for whatever reason, to mean him harm. His mind coloured them, gave them detail, drew horns and foul hair and tails onto them and made them deeply real, moment by moment. His mind racing, filled with images of childhood’s worst fears, he sat up sharply and hurriedly shot glances around him, hoping not to catch a glimpse of shining eye or glistening scales. A deep breath and he slumped once more onto his makeshift sheet. Rationality was needed, he reasoned. The vague forms and glows subsided as he wrestled with his mind, and he stood up again. The village, he knew, was only a few more miles down the path. If he kept walking then the lights and festivities would soon begin to pierce the blanket night, giving him hope and, he thought with shame, safety. Resolve was building within him as he set off, quietly and carefully following the beaten path ahead of him. Occasionally he would quickly and slyly peer into the gloom around him, like a rabbit near a fox’s burrow, and then regret the action. He knew that the more he gave into these childlike fancies, the worse he would feel. The fens were merciless, and it wasn’t a good idea to give in to them so easily. Another peek over his shoulder, expecting to see a nameless fear, and he picked up his pace.
Silence. For a second everything in his body stopped. His breath stalled in his throat; his eyes fixed on a point, taking nothing in; his right foot halted in mid-air; his heart gripped onto the blood within it and refused to plunge it back out. His body had stopped but his mind was firing, considering options both reasoned and irrational. There had only been two, and they had matched his footsteps perfectly. He lowered his right foot and stood steadily, his heart still and his lungs aching. But they couldn’t have matched his own steps – then he would never have heard them. They had been very slightly out of time with his. It had been this slight discord that he had noticed – a subtle unsettling variation on the steady rhythm of his feet as they moved on. But there had only been two. He was still standing in precisely the spot where he had stopped. The irony wasn’t lost on him, even in his fragile mental state, that if something had been following, it would have easily caught up with him now. He laughed quietly at the thought, and fixed his attention on the practicalities of the situation. If he accepted that there had been extra footsteps, then why were there so few? Perhaps only two of them fell out of the regular rhythm, before urgently matching the tempo again. Perhaps this mysterious follower had been pursuing for some time, and only gave itself away in that brief, clumsy moment. Or, of course, perhaps he had simply imagined the sound, or they were some peculiar echo.