Niomir looked out into the sunset. The grass was aglow with sunlight. The wind brushed ripples across the swaying surface, made it seem like a golden lake, spreading towards the horizon.
It was finally done. The Runts collected and stored every single seed that grew out there. Some of it was already crushed in the big stone bowls and baked into bitter bread.
With the days of labour behind him, Niomir could finally look at his new home. He missed the life in the highlands, naturally. He missed the thrill of the track and the hunt. His hand ached for the spear that was taken from him. Even so, there was beauty in the lowlands if one was willing to see it. He could watch the endless flocks of birds, flying overhead, chasing the evening sun. He’d never thrown a spear after birds, they were too small a target and they would never allow a hunter to come close enough to make a successful throw. He thought about tossing a stone at them but they were too high up. He was content on watching their wings sail across the sky.
The aches in his back and legs were so familiar now they failed to bother him anymore. And with the seeds all stored for the coming winter, there was an unmistakable feeling of satisfaction at the thought what labours he accomplished together with the other Runts.
Sounds of commotion interrupted his thoughts. He turned. A single figure was approaching the settlement through the harvested grass. He knew who it was. Only one member of the tribe carried that bulged staff.
Niomir joined the other Runts as they gathered in the center of the settlement. He kept himself in the background. There was something about Flat Face’s gaze that made him feel cold inside. From the looks of things, the others shared the sentiment.
Flat Face walked past the grain cisterns and reached in the center of the settlement. He seemed to pay no attention to the swarm of Runt that had gathered around him. His demeanour suggested they weren’t there at all. No one dared to approach him to ask why he was here.
The entire situation began to grow awkward. That’s when Grower appeared, dusting himself off in haste. Flat Face immediately turned to him.
“Tomorrow,” he began, “you will begin working on the new houses.” Hushed whispers spread across the entire congregation. Flat Face didn’t hear them or he didn’t care. “You will build eight new houses in the next two moons.”
Now the whisper that circled among the Runts turned into a groan of desperation. It quickly subsided as they realized it was loud enough to be heard. Niomir looked to Grower. He refused to look away from Flat Face but Niomir could see his jaw tighten.
This was a mighty undertaking. Houses took several days to be built and were prone to collapse should the foundation be rushed.
Flat Face, ignoring everyone and their anguish, used the butt of his staff to sketch the rough outline of the settlement in the dirt as a bird overhead might see it. He added the new houses. They encircled the settlement from all directions, leaving only small space between them. The view that Niomir had enjoyed just moments before would be the thing of the past.
The Runts maintained silence as long as Flat Face was still in sight of them. Finally, as he took leave, the pent up tension exploded.
“Two moons! We can barely build five in such time!”
“If we hurry, we might make them unstable. They would collapse by winter.”
“We can do it,” Grower said firmly as if the mere fact of him saying it was enough to make it so. Niomir could not help but admire him. This was a leader the Runts needed to meet their insane elder’s orders.
“Did the other settlements get the same order?”
“We can assume so,” Grower said.
“But why? Why do we need new houses?”
“New tenants,” one of them suggested.
“Eight new houses mean our numbers here would double.”
“Does Flat Face plan to Runt the entire tribe?”
“They will winter with us,” Niomir said. He wasn’t loud but his words caused everyone to turn his way. Niomir fought the urge to look away from them. Until now, he had hardly exchanged words with anyone but Grower. Even though he lived among them, Niomir had kept himself apart from them.
“Tribesmen do not winter down here. They have caves for that.”
“Perhaps the caves are flooded.”
After a time, the conversation died down. The Runts stood around the sketch Flat Face had made and eyed the proposed expansion of the settlement.
“Look how they mean to encircle us,” one of them said.
“To make sure we remember our place,” another murmured.
Niomir did not share the opinion. The conversation he’d had with Grower kept gnawing on his mind. Because of this, he reached a completely different conclusion.
If hunters serve as a defense against incursions of other tribes, bringing them to the Runt settlement means abandoning the uplands and concentrate their defence here, around their winter stores.
What if diminishing game was a problem all tribes shared?
What if other tribes were already on the verge of desperation?
Niomir swallowed. He glanced at Grower. He was looking his way. As he caught Niomir’s gaze, Grower made a slight nod.
What if summoning the tribesmen to the lowlands and surrounding Runt settlements was the last line of defense against their starving neighbours?
Niomir dragged the crude sled in his trail. His arms were coils of strained muscle. Sweat came down his face in rivulets. This was how he used to drag heavy game after he’d made the kill. His body remembered it so well it was almost enough to trick his mind as well.
A clanking sound came from behind. It’s not a pile of dead wood, he urged his imagination. Antler banged against a root. But it was too late to preserve the illusion.
The air was heavy with moisture and saturated with familiar smells. Sunlight came in occasional streams through the canopy. Birds darted through the underbrush. In the grassland, the birds flew in great flocks, too high to be reached with spear or stone. Here, they were small and solitary things, too fast and nimble to hunt.
It felt good to be in the woods again. He had Grower to thank for this. He could’ve picked anyone else to do this but he chose Niomir.
He also put the juvenile to watch over me. Niomir wasn’t sure if that should’ve been taken as an insult or not. The juvenile walked behind him, picked up the branches that fell from the sled and placed it back on the moving pile. He could not hope to stop Niomir if he decided to flee. However, Niomir knew that whoever was with him would suffer punishment for not stopping him. The juvenile was the weakest of the Runts and that was precisely why Niomir could not bring himself to put him into trouble.
Everytime he thought Grower had slipped in his cautiousness, he was actually thinking ahead of Niomir.
The tree line came far too soon. Branches opened up and he was once again in the open, the grasslands spread before him. The Runt settlement was a group of mounds in the distance. At the sight of them, the aches in his arms and back turned into pain. Niomir wiped the sweat off his brow, sighed and continued on.
He was still a spear toss from the away from the settlement when he heard the commotion. The juvenile caught up. They exchanged a glance.
“Tribesmen,” Niomir said. “They’re finally here.”
The first contingent of tribesmen had arrived days ago but they were settled in one of the neighbouring settlements. The group that just walked into the settlement from the opposite side was here to stay. Their arrival turned the settlement buzzing like a hive of bees. Runts scurried everywhere, excitement and fear mixing freely between them. With the juvenile’s help, Niomir dragged the sled through the gap between the walls of the new houses.
It was a group large enough to fill the entire settlement. Roughly the same number as the Runts if not more.
It’s been several moons since he’d seen tribesmen last. They were ragged looking and not very well fed. The hunting must not have been good since he’d been gone. They were ladden with their hunting equipment and every possible utensil. Each one had his spear even though there was no game in the lowlands. They brought everything they could carry.
The tribesmen were visibly uncomfortable among the Runts. It was as if they had all been condemned to Runt status and had been forced to descend from the uplands.
Only one of them did not act squeamishly. Niomir noticed how all of them revolved around him without knowing it consciously. The man’s back was to Niomir but soon he turned around.
Niomir’s hands clenched. The corners of his eyes tightened.
It was Setimika.
Niomir could still remember his smug grin on the day he’d been Runted. He didn’t seem to be grinning much lately. His face was narrow, his jaw tight, a permanent scowl resting upon his features.
Setimika’s gaze grazed Niomir’s face and moved on.
He did not recognize me.
Setimika turned to one of the nearby Runts but failed to make eye contact. “Food,” he said.
The Runts scrambled for the food stores. Anticipating this, Grower had a large amount of bread freshly baked that very morning. Every day, the Runts baked a new batch so it didn’t go stale.
The tribesmen sat on their cloaks, tired after the march. The Runts brought the flatbread in wicker baskets. Niomir saw the tribesmen’s faces grow long as they realized they will not be fed meat. A few of them bit into the flatbread. Their faces puckered but they kept chewing.
Too hungry to complain, thought Niomir.
One of the Runts approached Setimika timidly and offered him the basket. Setimika took a flatbread, bit into it and spat it out with revulsion. “This tastes like dirt!” He threw the remainder of the bread into the Runt’s face who yelped and scampered away.
Niomir felt anger boil up inside him. “Savage!” he snapped quietly.
What followed was a long moment of silence. All the tribesmen turned to him, their gazes boring into him. Niomir realized he wasn’t as quiet as he’d thought.
Setimika zeroed in on him. “Who are you talking to, maggot?” he growled.
It was no doubt meant to sow fear into him. It certainly worked on other Runts who retreated slowly from Setimika’s gaze even though it wasn’t directed at them. Niomir, however, found himself quite empty of fear. What he found instead was fortitude. “We laboured for weeks so that you could now eat,” he said. “Show gratitude.”
Setimika stared at him as if he could not believe he was spoken to in this manner. He made a beeline for Niomir, seething with rage.
The world shrunk. The huts were gone, the Runts no longer stood around him and he could not feel the angry stare of the other tribesmen any longer. All that remained was his foe, advancing at him. Setimika was tall and muscular. It was natural that he would rely on brute strength. In this, he was no different than the more dangerous animals Niomir had hunted.
With a quick move of his hand, Niomir slapped away the fist that came hurtling towards his face. He made a fist of his own and slammed it into the attacker’s side. It connected just beneath Setimika’s armpit where no muscles protected the ribs. Niomir’s knuckles roared with pain but so did Setimika. Niomir’s punch threw him off balance. Setimika fell to the ground, clutching his side.
The world expanded. Niomir could register the surroundings again and found that the world had stopped moving. The entire congregation seemed to have turned to stone. The eyes of the tribesmen and Runts darted to all sides, eyeing one another, uncertain of what to make of the situation.
Into this strode Flat Face. The press of men parted before him like grass before the wind. Even Niomir made a few retreatign steps.
Flat Face walked to the center of the scene. “What is all this?” His voice droned into Niomir’s ears like a hornet’s buzz.
Niomir glanced at Setimika who threw him a sideways glance. “I slipped and fell,” Setimika said non-chalantly. Despite the effort, he could not hide the wince on his face. “It was a stupid move on my part, nothing more.”
“What did you slip on?” Flat Face demanded.
It seemed such a trivial question. “A pebble, most likely,” Setimika said. “It rolled underneath my foot.”
Niomir felt relieved. Setimika agreed the situation had turned pointlessly absurd. To accuse anyone in front of Flat Face would be taking it too far.
Flat Face turned to Grower who stood among the other Runts. “I thought I told you to keep the site clean and orderly.”
Grower remained composed but Niomir could see a bead of sweat coming down his neck. “My men were busy preparing the settlement. They couldn’t keep an eye on every pebble.”
Flat Face’s features remained cold like stone. “Then the whole effort was for nothing. I told you to make this place safe and comfortable for the arrival of the tribesmen. You failed.”
The Runts and tribesmen looked about, unsure of where this was going. Niomir stared at Grower whose face was rigid.
The silence stretched for what seemed like hours. Then Flat Face said: “You must be punished.”
Flat Face’s hand flicked a minute gesture. Three tribesmen stepped in and laid hands on Grower. Instinctively, Niomir’s limbs coiled, ready to spring. Grower noticed this and fixed him with a stare. There were words in that stare. *Do not intervene now. You will only make matters worse.*
Flat Face raised his totem staff and untied a slim rod that was tied to it. Niomir noticed the rod when Flat Face had proclaimed him a Runt but failed to grasp its significance at the time.
Grower refused to be held by the tribesmen. He turned his back to Flat Face and placed his palms on the wall of the nearest house. Niomir noticed old scars on Grower’s exposed back. He’d seen them when they’d been working in the fields but took them for mundane working injuries, scratches from a low-hanging tree branch perhaps. Now he could see these weren’t scratches. They were bruises, permanently etched into Grower’s flesh.
With the first blow, the man vanished and turned to meat before Niomir’s very eyes. The transformation was so sudden his stomach heaved and threatened to bring forth his last meal.
The skin did not break. Where the blows landed, it grew thicker as if it tried to fight the assault. Long welts sprouted across the flesh like the longest of worms, the color of bleeding meat yet no blood was spilled. The meat cringed with each blow but gave off no sound. Each blow hammered at Niomir’s ears and made him flinch. Forces awoke in his limbs and roared at him to make it stop, to offer his own flesh in stead. But Niomir found himself paralyzed. He could do nothing but watch and endure.
The beating seemed to be going on forever. “Eight,” Flat Face’s voice eventually droned. Niomir gasped – he was holding his breath throughout the ordeal. Flat Face lowered the rod, snatched his totem staff from the hands of a nearby tribesman and walked away. As he was tirning away to leave, his eyes flicked at Niomir. It only lasted a moment but Niomir felt a wash of cold coming over him.
The meat made a sound. Niomir turned back and just like that, a man knelt there instead of meat, clutching a wall for support. Niomir stared at the ghastly transition.
The spirit could not endure what was happening to the flesh and fled until it was over.
Two Runts took Grower below the arms and carried him carefully to the nearest of the huts. The rest of the Runts came to life. Their faces were pale, exhaustion visible in their every feature. Even so, they continued to distribute flatbread among the tribesmen. The day was not done and neither were their labours.