The world had not fully come to light but Niomir already waited hidden in the frozen brush close to the latrines. If anyone but Nimmian approached, he would say he was digging a new latrine. He even had the shovel with him to prove it.
He recognized the sound of Nimmian’s hesitant footsteps before he saw him. His brother never could learn to walk silently. Niomir stood up, stepped out of his cover and waited for Nimmian to approach.
Nimmian had the spear with him. He handed it to Niomir without a word or daring to look him in the eye. Seeing his brother humbled in this pityful way, Niomir felt a stab of guilt. Immediately, anger for the sentiment followed. Why should I feel sorry for him anymore? Niomir took the offered spear and tore it from his brother’s grip. Nimmian flinched and recoiled as if expecting a blow to follow.
Niomir gave the spear a quick inspection. He had picked the tree and the limb as a favor to his brother. Told him how to sever it from the tree without hurting its heart, instructed him how to shape flight into it. The execution of those instructions was not to his liking but the finished spear did pass the elder’s inspection and was endowed with charms of obsidian and jade.
“What will you do with it?” Nimmian asked pleadingly.
Niomir shot him a glance. “Something the tribesmen are unable to do. Feed the tribe.”
Quite the boast, a humbler part of him chided. Best take care the spirits don’t hear your pride.
Niomir turned and went for the treeline. The easy part is done, he thought as he walked. By giving his own spear to me, he is my accomplice. He cannot betray me without betraying himself.
He reached the edge of the forest. A shiver crept along his spine. Though hardened by hard labour and exposure to the elements, Niomir was not immune to the biting teeth of the wind that raced across the plain. This shiver, though, came from deeper within.
Sour thoughts came creeping in as he stood there. My chance of finding a large beast in the middle of winter are less than slim.
Hunting was a joined ordeal. He’d always had help before. If not for anything else, his brother was useful to help him corner and distract his prey. Now there would be no assistance.
The spear in his hand felt odd, foreign. He should’ve practiced days with it to figure out exactly how it behaved in wind or in calm. Should he be forced to cast downhill, the spear might possess too much flight and the missile would overshoot.
I could have fashioned my own spear but I would need tools and fire to do it properly. There are tools and fire back in the settlement but I could never do it unseen. Could I craft tools in the wilderness? Could I make a proper fire in these conditions? Even if everything went perfectly, I would need days to fashion a proper spear, test and correct it for imperfections. And after everything else, there was no one who would endow it. Every cast would have been bereft of the blessing of the spirits.
It could have been done if he had time. He had time but others didn’t. With his inner eye, Niomir saw the juvenile’s pale face and his bloodshot eyes, trembling under the covers. They’d piled everything they could find on him to keep him warm.
How can we expect him to get better if we all go underfed?
He walked through the treeline.
The sun was a smear of light on the high clouds. Niomir stalked through the frozen undergrowth, looking for signs of life. Not a single footstep in the frost. The forest was cold and dead and still. It was so strange and so foreign that his hunting instincts refused to wake as if they failed to recognize he was in fact hunting. Still, he pressed on.
Hours went by and doubt started to creep into his limbs along with the cold but he pushed himself onward.
The wind picked up. It hissed among the branches above. Dry limbs groaned as they swayed. The sound made him uneasy. The wind spirits are distraught. Are they telling me I’ve done wrong for coming out here?
Hints of true fear winked into his awareness. It took all of his self-control to quiet them down again.
No. What I do is not for my own good but for the benefit of the tribe. The tribesmen will be fed meat and the Runts will have an increased hardbread ration. If I bring back something… anything… everybody gains.
At last, on the bottom of an old game trail he used to frequent: fresh trail. He felt his hunting instincts yawn and awaken from a long slumber. Relief surged through his limbs like a warm torrent. He crouched over the tracks, trying to estimate how far the beast might have gone by now.
The inner warmth faded as if swept away by the wind. Niomir felt cold and alone in the menacing woods as he recognized the tracks.
No creature of the Woodland was more dangerous than the boar. Even a bear, while bigger and stronger, was wise enough to turn away from approaching tribesmen. But a boar did not run away. They had the unfortunate habit of charging anything and anyone that came within twenty paces of them. Their weight and speed alone were enough to break a man’s ribcage. The sharp tusks were more than enough to rend the belly of a tribesman.
Worse, boars were meat-eaters. They would feast on anything they could get their snout on. There was a reason why no tribesman who went after a boar was ever found.
Niomir heard mad laughter close by and realized it was his own voice. By chance, he’d found a living beast in the middle of a dead winter forest. Only to be confronted by a beast that no tribesman dared to go up against.
“This is your doing, spirits,” he said out loud into the air. “You are challenging me, testing me for vanity.”
In that instant, several things were perfectly clear to him. If he should abandon this quarry, he would not be permitted to encounter another one. The day was growing short alreday and if he should abandon this trail, it would mean spending the night in the woods. The wind was already cutting right through his cloak. The cold would be lethal at night. If he survived the night, his fingers and toes surely wouldn’t.
This was more than a test. It was a trial. He’d boasted to Flat Face of being the most skilled hunter in the entire tribe. He’d said that he would succeed where all others have failed. The spirits must have been listening, decided to test the truth of his words. Now he had to make good on that promise or slink back empty-handed and receive the punishment for a rebellious Runt that he was.
The only way was forward. But how? How could I possibly try to take on a boar with nothing but a throwing spear? A boar’s flank was covered with coarse hair. He would have to come within ten paces of the beast to hope to penetrate the fur. Even if he got close enough, the boar could move so fast the spear could come in at a wrong angle and bounce off completely. And there was no guaranteed throw with another’s spear.
All in all, he was as close to being naked and weaponless as if he truly were.
There was a myth – a rumour really – that tribesmen used to hunt boars with heavy, long pikes. One would essentially had to let a boar jump him and then place a spear between them. Thus, the boar would do most of the work and impale itself on one’s spear. All one had to do was stand completely still as a raging, roaring pig was charging straight for him.
Niomir realized the cold had crept into his extremities and made him shiver. The next move would seal his fate. He could still turn back and admit failure.
He forced himself to make a single step into the direction into which the tracks led. He made another. Movement brought him a sliver of warmth and action brought back his resolve.
No, there was no going back. This had to be done and he was the one going to do it.
His spear was too light to be used as a pike but there was nothing for it. Either it would hold and do its job or it would break on first contact and there would be nothing that separated him from those tusks…