“No, not like that!”
Niomir turned with a handful of grass in his hand. The juvenile came running at him with a frightened look. He grabbed Niomir’s hands with urgency. “Don’t rip the grass out of the ground. You must cut off only the seed, like this.” The juvenile used a knife – it was the most crudely crafted flint knife Niomir had ever seen – to snip off the seed head. He left the rest of the plant untouched. Niomir gave him a queer look. “This is far too slow. It’s a waste of time.” He grabbed another handful and made to rip them from the ground. “This would be much fas-”
“No!” The juvenile grabbed his hands again. He stared at Niomir wide-eyed as if he were about to rip someone’s head off instead. It could be considered comical if Niomir were in the mood for laughter.
“Why not?” Niomir’s voice dropped to a menacing tone. Earlier in the day, he’d been shown how he was to use his flint knife. It was midday now and Niomir was exhausted. The work was progressing far too slowly for his taste and there was still a whole hillside to harvest. True, there were other Runts not far away, sharing the work load, but the swath of meadow that was his to harvest was immense. Unlike the trees of the woodland, the grass offered no protection from the sun. He could wear a skin but then the heat would kill him.
“We do not murder the grass,” the juvenile said in apologetic tones. Niomir’s hostile tone shook him. “The grass must stay in the ground and only the seeds are to be removed.”
Niomir fought hard to keep his voice in neutral tones. “There are only two of us here. Who will know?”
“The spirits will,” the juvenile said almost in a whisper. “We do not eat the grass, only the seeds. Tearing the grass would be an affront to the spirits and they would punish us for wrongdoing.”
Niomir stood, his face blank with disbelief. “I used to pull grass by the handful and stuffed it into my cloak for the night. No spirit took offense.”
“But you are no longer a hunter, stalking about in the hills.”
Niomir knew who it was before he turned. That voice was more recognizable than the face it belonged to.
As each of the hunting groups had their own leader, so did the Runts of this particular settlement. Niomir had met him on the first day of his exile.
The memory of his arrival into the Runt village was blurred, though only days had passed since then. The hovels he’d seen only as specks from afar had loomed close by.
It struck him that he was not alone here. Men stood around him, looking at him.
He was vaguely aware that someone was talking to him. Niomir was unable to focus his mind enough to understand what they said. He sensed that the words were meant for others as well, not just him. All he knew was that he was cold, hungry and exhausted.
The world spun around him. Once more, he saw the tree that spanned the chasm from below. It flew away from him and the darkness closed in from both sides. His legs failed him at that point and he collapsed to the ground. He was vaguely aware of hands lifting him up, carrying him into one of the hovels.
There was darkness, dry straw underneath him. And the voice. “I will let you rest for a few days,” it said. “Give yourself time. And do not fret about the future.”
They’d given him no meat to eat, only a thick soup that tasted unlike anything he’d ever eaten. It was barely edible. It took him days to get used to the new diet without his bowels rebelling on him.
“Why would tearing grass be different for a tribesman?” Niomir asked as Grower approached through the sea of grass. The juvenile that was plaguing him stepped away.
“Because tribesmen don’t make beds with lowland grass,” said Grower.
Niomir hesitated. It was true, highland grass remained green until the snow covered it, its blades lean and long, its seed stalks small. Lowland grass, the one they stood in now, had shorter blades, huge seed stalks and it turned brown in the summer as if the sun had scorched it.
“Can you make the highland grass grow seeds as large as this?” Grower asked. Niomir shook his head, feeling strangely chastened by Grower’s voice. “Then do as you’re told and don’t rip them out.” It was said without menace but with a certain charge that suggested if Niomir continued with his headstrong approach, there would be repercussions.
He found himself obediently turning to the task at hand.
By the time the sun took cover behind the distant hills, his fingers were numb and his back was a blazing torch. Never knew how long a day could be. I could spend half a day tracking a single animal and never know it until I’d made the kill and looked up for the sun.
What concerned him most were his eyes. He could not see clearly, not even after squeezing his eyes a few times.
And this was only the first day, he thought as he stumbled into the hovel he shared with some of the Runts. Will I go blind before the winter comes? Are these Runts already blind? No, the juvenile did look at me when we spoke. Do they all see nothing but what’s in reach of their hands?
It was a terrible thought, one that was sure to keep him awake all night. Or so he thought. The instant he lay down onto his mouldy mattress he was dead asleep.
The hustle of other Runts woke him early the next morning. Niomir sat up and winced. His back was killing him no matter how much he stretched and straightened up.
The insides of the hut were dark. It felt familiar, reminded him of the caves where he used to winter with his hunting group. The entrance was the only source of painfully potent light. Niomir closed his eyes and felt his way out in the open. The light hurt him through closed lids. He rubbed his eyes again, afraid his eyesight would still be wounded when he finally looked into the world.
“Problems with your eyes?” a familiar voice said. Niomir nodded. “It happens if you focus on what is front of you for too long,” he said. “Learn to use your hands more and you won’t need to keep a close eye on the work.”
Niomir nodded, still not opening them.
Finally, he risked it. The world slowly focused into shape. With relief, he noticed his eyesight was still sharp.
The hovels marred his vision, a mess of dead wood and dead grass. Beyond these, the brown grass swayed and beckoned him for another day of grinding labour. He cringed at the thought. In the distance, another group of hovels. The adjacent settlement.
He turned westward with longing. In the distance, the green hills towered above the lowlands. He could recall the fragrant moisture of the forest as he stalked his prey. The smell of mud that squished beneath his tread. He could see before him the twitching ears of a deer and hear the call of the elk, fearless in his strength until the very moment his spear impaled him. The muscles of Niomir’s throwing arm coiled, his fingers flexed and gripped a phantom spear that was taken from him.
Grower led him to a large stone bowl. It was big enough to fit a grown man’s head, its walls two fingers thick. It was empty save a single long stone with a flat end, perfectly fitted for gripping. “Today, you will crush the seeds you’ve gathered yesterday. Grind each handful into the finest powder and then pour it into this jar here.”
Niomir found the idea preposterous. “How will we eat the seeds if there are ground into powder?” He tried to imagine gulping down a powder as fine as ash.
“We will mix the powder with water and put the paste over heated stones. I take it you’ve seen these before.” Grower offered him a piece of flat dark bread. Niomir’s face puckered. So this is where the blasted bread comes from. He’d eaten these before but never knew what it was made of. They were hard and bitter things though he was forced to admit they did fill the stomach.
The bowl was thick enough to withstand the assault of the long stone. He quickly learned the best way to hold it and how to apply strength to grind the seeds into the finest powder. There was hardly any husk to remove. Soon he was sweating but this kind of labour was preferable to yesterday’s. At least, he could unleash his pent up emotions.
“You look like you’re blaming someone for what happened to you.” Niomir looked up. Grower watched him. “You’re crushing those those seeds with hate as much as with a stone.”
“Do I look like an average Runt?” Niomir spilled a batch of powder into the jar and reached for more uncrushed seeds.
“You are stronger than the others we get,” Grower said. “Usually, men are Runted once they can’t keep up with the rest. You, on the other hand, came to us because you were a gambler. I hear you risked the dangerous path and fell into the chasm. A gamble that didn’t pay off.”
“I fell because I trusted the wrong man.” Niomir brought the pestle down with a resounding thud.
Grower stood by in silence. “I believe you,” he finally said. Niomir’s stone wavered for a moment. He continued to punish the seeds without looking up. “Not everyone is here because they were feeble,” Grower said. “This world is many things but fair is not one of them.”
“Is that how you got here?” Niomir nodded towards Grower’s leg. He’d seen him limping before.
“That was part of the reason,” Grower said. “The other part is I volunteered to be Runted.”
This time Niomir did look up, unmasked astonishment on his face.
“Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses is an important trait in life,” Grower said. “I was good with herbs and plants even before the leg went bad. I saw Runts trying to survive on grass, struggle to make it edible. I knew this was something I was more suited for than going about in the forest, snaring squirrels and the like.”
“I am a lot like you,” said Niomir. He removed the few filaments of grass fibers and poured a new handful of powder into the jar. “Except that I’m a natural hunter. This,” he pointed at the stone bowl, “is not what I’m good at.”
Grower eyed him for a time. Niomir believed the conversation was over and continued beating the seeds into nothing. “You are new among us,” Grower said at last. “Some things are unclear to you. Permit me to enlighten you.” He leaned in, looking straight at Niomir. “The fact that you are no longer permitted to carry weapons changes nothing. You are still a part of this tribe and you still do everything in your power to ensure its survival. Hunters are out there to protect it from without. We are here to protect it from within.”
Niomir found that last part odd. “Tribesmen protect it from without?” he said. “Against what? They bring no meat down here.”
“There are other tribes out there,” Grower said. “Other tribes without fertile lowlands to fall back on if game should grow scarce.”
Niomir stared. “They are our cousins. We are all offspring of the same spirits. Why would they come against us?”
“Because the flesh we embody doesn’t care about us being cousins. All it cares about is eating enough so that it doesn’t die.” Grower twitched an eyebrow. “What do you think our cousins would do if they were starving and they would stumble upon our grassland?”
Niomir was speechless. He’d been a hunter all his life and not once he heard or even thought about any such things. “All we’ve been told about other tribes was to keep them from hunting in our territory if they should venture across the border by accident.”
“By accident,” Grower said pointedly, turned and walked away. Niomir caught his meaning and realized he had no more words.