The deer’s head snapped up, ears twitching, the meal forgotten. Its head turned, seeking source of the peculiar noise. A nearby shrub rustled in a suspicious manner.
The spear came from a different direction, the very one the deer just turned away from.
The missile pierced the animal through the chest and brought it down before it could make another step.
A nearby thicket stirred and Niomir emerged from it. His face was sprayed with mud and sweat. Long hair was tied behind his back. He made straight for the writhing deer. Before he reached it, the shivers had abated and it lay still. He knelt beside the fallen animal and placed his throwing hand flat on the deer’s breast.
Niomir raised a solemn face to the sky. “I thank you, spirits of the Earth and Sky, for this bounty.” He lowered his face and gazed in the deer’s eye. “I thank you, brother, for granting me your flesh that I may eat of it. I will drink the sunlight in your name so that you may join with our Sky-kin.”
He touched the copper bead, dangling on the slender braid at his ear, while he turned his face skyward again. The trees whispered their sage song. The sun’s rays caressed his face. Birds began to chime. Niomir felt that the deer’s spirit has successfully fled. What lay before him in the dirt was no longer a spirit brother. It was but meat and they were free to eat of it.
By now, Nimmian had dislodged himself from the shrub and approached.
“Good distraction,” said Niomir without looking up. He wrenched the spear free and pulled a pair of leather straps from his belt.
“It’s nice to be good for something,” Nimmian said. He carried a thick pole.
Niomir shook his head. “I had the better position this time.” He used one leather strap to bind the deer’s front legs. “Next time we will switch.”
“You are a better thrower than I,” Nimmian said. “No point pretending otherwise.”
“Concealment is more important than throwing,” Niomir said. The deer’s hind legs were tied together now as well. “Tracking too. You are good at that.”
“I will never be as good as you,” Nimmian said. He handed the pole to Niomir. “None of us will.”
Niomir took the pole and shook his head. “Sometimes I forget we share a bloodline. You fail before you even try.” He slid the pole between both pairs of tied hooves. Together, they lifted the carcass and carried it away, its head dangling with each step.
Despite the load, their step was quickened. Sweat poured over their naked backs. It was close to noon in the middle of summer. With the deer’s spirit no longer guarding the flesh, the carcass would fall victim to vermin and corruption quickly. If they wanted to share it with the others, they would have to make haste.
As they labored with the carcass, a thought began to gnaw on Niomir’s mind
Once, Nimmian had been able to keep up with Niomir. But then Niomir had begun to surpass him at every turn. It wasn’t long before Niomir could outthrow, outswim and outrun him. Nimmian could not hide his frustration but he refused to talk openly about it.
There was another reason for tension. The day of the Winnow was approaching. Nimmian had been having nightmares about being singled out as the weakest member of the tribe and proclaimed with the dreaded acronym – a Runt.
They crossed a shallow but swift stream, tumbling from the highlands. They raised the carcass high over their heads and proceeded to cross. The frigid water numbed their feet, forcing them to stop and wait until circulation returned. As they continued, the deer seemed to have grown heavy as a stone. Niomir’s mind, however, had grown heavier.
He knew that Nimmian had been falling behind in every race for a good long while. Not only could he not keep with Niomir himself, he could not keep up with most others of the tribe. Those few that were slower got picked off and had already been proclaimed as Runts, their hunting rights denied, their movement restricted to the lowlands. Nimmian had been watching his Runt status slowly creep up on him.
I should do something, Niomir thought. The deer’s head dangled between them with each stride. But what could I do? If he’s Runted, he’s beyond my aid. Once declared, there is no chance of undoing it.
The encampment was perched off a bluff overlooking the valley a thousand feet below. Eight crude tents built of hides surrounded a hastily dug fire pit. It wasn’t a permanent dwelling place. The tribesmen were constantly on the move across their local hunting grounds.
A group of them had scattered this morning in search of game. They had all pretended it was for sport but no one could deny that larger beasts had grown scarcer with each season. Niomir made a quick count as they approached: six. He and Niomir were the last to arrive. From the look of things, they were the only ones who brought in a kill.
With a groan, Niomir unloaded the carcass and stretched his back. A couple of tribesmen came forward and congratulated him on the successful kill. Niomir didn’t mind sharing the meat with the others. The remaining four remained as they were. Niomir was used to the cold stares they threw his way.
The tribesmen of Winter Boar tribe were scattered into a myriad of smaller hunting groups. Each group had an unofficial leader, one that others would look up to, one whose word was more influential than that of others. The leader of this particular group was Setimika, a large man with a permanent scowl. Though Niomir never officially challenged him for the title, Setimika nevertheless saw him as a potential rival. The fact that Niomir could outhunt him only served to augment the friction between the two of them.
“Thought you went boar hunting,” Setimika muttered in his direction. Niomir seemed not to hear it. He took a meticulously sharpened flint knife and proceeded to skin the deer.
There were stories of Alvor once being so strong and swift they were able to go after boars. These days, one would have to be utterly foolish or desperate to go up against a boar. The danger was simply too great. The hunter would only chose to risk a boar hunt if he was vain and loved approval of others more than his own life. Proud hunters were said to have tried their luck going after a boar… and were never seen again.
Accuse me all you like, Niomir thought as he skinned and cleaned the kill. It is nothing but your own envy, reflected back at you.
A successful kill was a reason to rejoice. The deer would feed them for a week, two if they were cautious, enough to give them time to rest and prepare for the Winnow.
As soon as the meat was distributed, the camp descended into silence. The men huddled in small groups, each hoarding his worries, occasionally glancing Niomir’s way as if he were the topic of their hushed conversation. Niomir felt the distance between him and them grow larger. It seemed he was the only one not concerned about the results of the Winnow.
As custom dictated, Niomir got the heart of the kill. He planned to share the prize with Nimmian but his brother took the most meager portion and turned away from him. It felt like a slap in the face but Niomir chose to ignore it.
Chewing slowly, savouring every bite, Niomir gazed into the valley below. The lowlands were draped in swaths of grass. Within two moons, they would be turning from green to gold.
The verdant plain was speckled with brown areas. Tendrils of smoke rose from them. Niomir’s nose instinctively wrinkled. Those were the permanent Runt settlements. He could only make out five from his vantage though he knew there were eight of them.
He could not imagine being forbidden to range and hunt as he pleased and to be restricted to those foul places, labouring in the dirt. After all this time, he could not understand why the elders have decreed this be done in the first place, just that it was the will of the spirits they were listening to.
Why would the spirits condemn men to this pathetic form of existence?
He caught pieces of other people’s hushed conversations.
“I suppose I would consider it,” Setimika said, trying to sound bold. “If I were Runted, I wouldn’t last trundling down there. I would risk it.”
“And you think Flat Face would let you leave?”
Niomir knew what they were talking about. Until quite recently, trade with the neighbouring tribes was still open. Though tribesmen continually suspected one another of poaching, they exchanged what little they could dispense with. With trade came rumours. A particular bit of gossip caught on and refused to die down.
It was said that all over the western ranges, Runts have been disappearing overnight. They were supposedly fleeing to the vast swamps further in the westlands. None ever returned. Some tribesmen believed that Runts turned mad and gave their flesh to the bogs while demons that dwelt there devoured their spirits.
But there were also those who whispered of a whole tribe of runaway Runts, forming hidden from sight. They were even supposed to have a leader, a man by the name of Isurion. No one knew which tribe he’d come from, just that he ranged across territorial boundaries with no concern of the ire of native tribesmen, not to mention the wrath of the spirits for his impudence. All this danger and blasphemy just to deprive the tribes of their Runts. To Niomir, it made no sense.
The elders across the tribes had unanimously dismissed the existence of such a man as idle talk, which was precisely why the rumour gathered merit. Judging from the hushed conversation Niomir overheard, the rumour was still very much alive.
Life in the swamps would be nothing but hardship. If we have difficulty finding food here, what could they possibly eat there? Slugs? He nearly gagged with the thought.
It was this very rumour that had caused Flat Face, the elder of Niomir’s tribe, to suspend all trade with other tribes indefinitely. He believed these rumors were nothing but a way of attacking their tribe’s way of life by planting treasonous ideas in the mind of the Runts. An idea that abandoning the tribe was a viable option and not a horrid sacrilege upon the will of the spirits.
Niomir could well remember the words Flat Face would drill in the heads of each of the new Runts. “The Runt serves the tribe. Abandoning the tribe is a crime great and heinous in the sight of the spirits. Such a man would be put down by them, his flesh devoured by beasts, his spirit scattered in the wind.”
All the men were tired from hunting and went to sleep as soon as the sun touched the faraway peaks. Each slept beneath a canopy of crude hide, his cloak under his head. With his belly full of meat and weary from the hunt, Niomir should’ve slept soundly through the night. Close by, Nimmian tossed and turned which kept him awake and caused him to think.
Nimmian dreaded the idea of becoming a Runt. He’d managed to avoid it so far but now he’d run out of time. The only choice left to him was to flee for the swamps to the west. The trouble was even if he did, Nimmian wouldn’t be able to get there by himself. As clumsy as he was, he would be tracked and found before he left Winter Boar tribe’s territory. If the horrid fate Flat Face had promised wasn’t enough, everyone knew the threats some of the more aggressive tribesmen murmured for the Runts to hear when Flat Face wasn’t around. No, should Nimmian dare to dry to escape, he would most certainly fail.
Unless he had help.
Niomir sat up and climbed from beneath his canopy. The moon was up by now, casting the silver light upon the Woodland. He walked all the way to the edge of the bluff. The night wind greeted him there. Crickets sang in the swaying grass around him.
What would happen if Niomir led Nimmian to the swamps where the runaway Runts were said to be gathering? Would Niomir himself return here? Would Setimika and the other tribesmen even let him return? If both Niomir and Nimmian disappeared at the same time, they would know Niomir helped his brother escape. Flat Face would not like the idea of a tribesman helping a Runt make away.
If he helped Nimmian escape, Niomir himself would certainly be punished upon return. They might even declare him a Runt for it and make sure he would not be able to flee.
If I do this, I would have to stay in the swamps as well. Could I do that? Give up my life and stay with the Runts even though I was not Runted?
Niomir gazed up at the moon, his mind unable to flow anymore. It was not an easy decision to make.