His pursuit had never made an appearance. The long way around the gorge took them too long to intercept him.

He fled until the savage power of the blizzard had run itself out. Gradually, he became aware of the foreignness of the woods around him and knew he’d crossed into the neighboring territory.

Niomir faced the unknown forest with empty eyes. He could feel the streaks where his face was burned by the scourging wind. His fingers burned as if they were on fire and his feet were lumps of agony.

Finally, he could not hold himself up any longer. What a cumbersome thing this flesh is, he thought wearily. It will be a blessing to leave it behind. With the final droplets of strength, he managed to prop himself up against a tree and assumed a half-sitting position.

This is a good spot. Here, I make my place. My spirit will climb the tree and leap into the spirit world. He fell into a state that was part slumber and part death.

He awoke with the sun’s rays in his eyes. The storm was gone, he bathed in sunlight.

Is this the spirit world? He looked down. His left hand was still short a thumb.

That was when he sensed another’s presence. Niomir slowly looked up. The man sat on the ground a stone toss away, turned sideface to him. Propped to a tree within the his reach stood the strangest spear ever. It was bent in peculiar way, a rope was dangling on it and there was no killing point on either end. Not a spear at all. A walking cane?

The stranger ignored him for the moment, casually nibbling a dried piece of fruit. He was the epitome of carefreeness but Niomir guessed it was an act.

Not an act. A choice.

“Just kill me and be done with it,” Niomir snapped.

The stranger’s eyebrows twitched. “Why would I do that?” he asked with a full mouth.

Niomir stared in disbelief. He expected he would be dispatched as soon as he was discovered. Now it seemed they were playing the waiting game.

He gave the man a more thorough inspection. The more he looked, the more he was confused by what he saw.

Under a fur cloak, the stranger wore a long yellow shirt. It was woven meticulously in a way such as Niomir had never seen. His tribe had weaved grass threads to fashion entrance flaps for their huts and built winter storage for seeds with it. But no one had ever thought of dressing into woven grass. The thread of this man’s shirt was too fine to be distinguished from a distance. And it fit perfectly, as if the entire garb was not woven at all but molded onto his body.

Footwear. Niomir couldn’t stop staring at them. These weren’t crude leggings such as he was used to. Not simple pieces of hide, peeled from a carcass and strapped around his feet. They were sown together from smaller parts of leather so that they took the form of an actual foot and fitted perfectly.

A clutch of feathered throwing darts poked from behind the stranger’s shoulder, too light to be effective as throwing missiles. And that strange roped cane he kept carefully in his reach despite giving off a casual feeling. Niomir’s focus kept going back to it.

Looks sturdy enough to crack my skull with it.

He looked for a tribal totem anywhere on the man’s person, or regional paintings on his clothes. Nothing. Why would a man walk through his own territory and not display his totem openly?

It dawned on him. “You’re trespassing as well.”

The man stopped chewing, looked his way, nodded. “It’s what I do best.”

Despite his best effort, Niomir was intrigued. “Are you a poacher?”

The stranger thought for a moment, nodded again, this time a slight smile on his face. “You could say that.”

Niomir couldn’t help but ask. “What’s your prey of choice?”

“Runaway Runts,” the man said. The air had gone much colder. For a few moments, the words hung between them like a blade. The stranger felt it too. “I tend to give them a choice if they want to come with me,” he said.

The words made Niomir’s mind quicken. “You are Isurion the Runt Stealer.”

The man nodded with a slight smile. “One of my better names. I have some worse ones as well.”

Niomir stared. This was the most despised man of the Four Nations. ‘A vicious troublemaker,’ Flat Face had called him once, ‘a trickster whose only task is to disrupt the ways of the tribes in any way possible.’ Some of the tribesmen had even blamed him for the latest scarcity of game. As if one man could change the travelling paths of the great herds.

Or could he?

He was also someone able to outsmart, avoid and outmanouvre every single tribesman who’d vowed to make an end to his activities.

“I’ve heard of you,” Niomir said. “I’ve also heard you don’t venture this far east.”

“I’m at home in the woods,” Isurion said. “But this far east, the woods turn to open grassland. I don’t like being exposed like this.”

“Yet here you are.”

“Yes,” Isurion said. “I tried to find good paths to the east while the winter kept the tribesmen in their caves and huts. But I was spotted and tracked by your neighbours. They cut off my retreat into familiar ground. I had no choice but to flee further east but I’ve never been this far east.” A peculiar emotion danced upon Isurion’s features. “To be honest, I’m lost.” He smiled at Niomir. “I could use some help.”

Niomir could not hide his astonishment. “You need my help?”

“I can’t do any Runt saving until I get saved first,” said Isurion and grinned.

“I’m not sure I deserve saving,” Niomir said, averting his eyes.

“Because you fled your tribe?” Isurion asked, at once serious.

“Because I abandoned those that relied upon me.”

Isurion chewed his berries thoughtfully. “I’ve met hundreds of Runts like you. Bereft of reason and faith. Wronged by the very tribe they grew in and loved. All felt betrayed and abused. Each season I take at least a handful with me.”

“Some believe your actions caused the current situation,” Niomir said. “The paranoia of my elder started with rumours of your exploits.”

Isurion eyed him. “Do you blame me for what happened to you?” He pointed at Niomir’s mutilated hand.

Niomir didn’t reply. The emotion in which he swam was alien to him. Was it anger? Was it relief?

Neither of them spoke for a while. Isurion chewed his berries, took a water bladder from his pack, drank, tossed it casually to Niomir. It landed just in reach of his good hand.

Niomir eyed the gift. The last time he’d received one was from Flat Face. He tried to figure out this strange man of the dreaded name and of the innocent face.

He peered at Isurion for a long time, watched him chew. “Why do this?”

Isurion stopped chewing. “What do you mean?”

“What reason do you have to risk life and limb to liberate someone you’ve never met before?”

A puzzled expression came across Isurion’s face. “No one has ever asked me that.”

Even his voice betrays naked emotion, Niomir noted. “I’m asking,” he said.

“This is important to you,” Isurion said. He was intrigued, it was plain. “Why do you want to know my motives?”

“Because I would rather stay right here and give my bones to the dirt than to change one madman’s fetters for another’s.”

Niomir glimpsed a wounded smile. “So I am on trial,” Isurion said.

“Aren’t we all?” Niomir said. Isurion smiled at that, turned serious and gazed out in the sky. For a while, he sat in silence. His features were naked to the point of innocence. Niomir stared. This is not how he’d imagined the dreaded Runt Stealer.

“I suppose…” Isurion finally voiced, “…I see suffering of Runts as an opportunity.”

“For what?”

“To show there is a better way than what the elders consider to be the only way. Their ways were born in another time, in another place. But we are not in that place anymore. Rules are only good as long as they serve us, protect us, nurture us. If your elder had possessed more vision, he would not have allowed dogma to prevent him from using your talents.”

Niomir’s eyes went wide. “How do you know about that?”

“Why else would they cut off your thumb other than to keep you from hunting? You are a born hunter. I saw that in the footprints you left behind.”

Isurion peered into Niomir’s eyes. “You said you don’t deserve saving.” Niomir was struck by the sudden power Isurion’s voice carried. “I disagree. I believe you are very much worthy of that. Even now, your first thought was of others. Even when you were prohibited by the creed to do so, you acted to protect others. That makes you worthy of being saved. But I will do more than save your life. I will give you the chance to recreate the world around you as you see fit. Until you came out here, the law made you powerless. Out here, you have the power to make a difference.”

“And the power to defy the creed of the spirits?” Niomir asked.

Isurion shrugged. “I don’t think of the spirits as the stern mentors the elders made them into. I believe in benevolent spirits, spirits that watch us with great affection and provide guidance in the right moment.”

Unexpectedly, anger erupted in Niomir. “Guidance?” he sneered. “You are as insane as every one of them.” He held up his mutilated hand. “Is this guidance, oh wise one? Why would the spirits want to do this to me unless they are cruel as Flat Face? I will never throw another spear.” The reality of it finally hit him with all force. Niomir reeled from the emotional blow. Tears came unsummoned to his eyes. He would not weep in front of this stranger, no matter what his name and reputation was.

“No, you will not.”

Something in Isurion’s voice caught Niomir’s attention. He looked up. Isurion stood up, picked up the strange cane and put his weight onto it. It bent so much Niomir thought he intended to break it. When he released it, the cane remained bent; the rope held it so.

In one fluid motion, Isurion reached behind his shoulder, took one of the darts on his back and placed the feathered end on the rope that bound the ends of the cane. He pulled the rope with one hand as he lifted the cane with the other. There was a sharp twang! that made Niomir cringe. The dart flew through the air with the speed of an angry hornet and thudded into a nearby tree. A squirrel twitched around it, impaled.

Niomir stared open-mouthed as Isurion walked to the tree and dislodged the dart. He brought the squirrel, still impaled, to Niomir and crouched in front of him.

“No, you will never throw another spear,” Isurion said, lifting the kill to eye height. Then he extended the roped cane toward Niomir, offered it to him with a smile. “But you will be able to use one of these.”

Niomir stared at the cane in wonder. A deep tremble began in his spine and overwhelmed his entire body. For a long moment, he could not name this sensation.

Then he recognized it – it was his hunter’s instinct, at long last growling back to life.