It was easy to follow Niomir. He’d left a noticeable trail through the frozen underbrush.
The tribesmen walked in a tight line with Flat Face at the fore. Their breath came in white clouds. Everyone held spears in their hands instead of in the sling on their backs, as if they expected to be attacked by the boar at any moment. Flat Face held no spear, walked with his shaman staff instead.
Nimmian walked directly behind Flat Face. He was the only one unarmed. No one would lend him their own spear. Not that he expected it but he did not understand why he was brought along if not to participate in the hunt.
The light behind the clouds had begun to fade. The sky turned from gray to grayer. They would not be able to return before night descended. It seemed unreasonable to continue with yet Flat Face moved on relentlessly.
What will he do with me? Nimmian thought miserably. He tried his best to keep the pace. Will he Runt me today? Why bring me along?
As they plodded on, fear crept into his bones along with the cold. Does he plan to use me as bait for the boar?
A noise came from up front. Heavy footsteps breaking underbrush.
Men rushed past Flat face and positioned themselves in a wide formation. Nimmian caught the fear written over their faces as they passed him. Their spears were lowered and ready. Nimmian felt utterly naked without his own. He glanced at Flat Face. He appeared unconcerned but then it was always impossibe to guess what he thought.
From behind an uprooted tree, a figure appeared, dragging something heavy behind it. It wasn’t looking up, didn’t notice them right away. Nimmian recognized that crown of hair.
Their eyes fell on the thing he dragged. On a crude sled, fashioned out of branches, lay a monster. It was too big for a badger, not long-limbed enough to be a deer.
Nimmian could not believe his eyes – singlehandedly, his brother had hunted and killed a boar!
One of them gasped, perhaps Nimmian himself. Niomir looked up then, saw them, stopped mid-stride.
No one moved for what seemed an eternity. Nimmian stared at the boar at his brother’s feet. The beast must have weighed thrice as much as him. If it had fallen upon their group, Flat Face would not have been able to hold them together. They would have scattered like a clutch of forest hens.
Nimmian glanced at Flat Face at his side. For the first time in his memory, Flat Face seemed unsure of himself. It was an easy thing to imagine finding Niomir, bringing him home, punishing him for transgression against the authority of his elder. But now he returns with the prize of all prizes. To punish him now would be… monstrous.
Worse. It would be wrong.
Before Flat Face decided what to do, Setimika stepped forward and approached Niomir. Nimmian could see his brother anticipated violence. He released the sled with the boar, stepped away from it, turned slightly sideways. It was a minute detail, something only Nimmian could notice but it told him his brother was ready to fight despite being visibly exhausted and possibly injured.
Setimika closed in to grabbing distance but made no move of aggression. He beckoned to the others. Two of the tribesmen approached, took the sled with the boar, began dragging it forward. Nimmian was surprised at the gesture. Setimika was treating Niomir as a fellow-hunter, relieving him of burden. Setimika turned away from Niomir to stare after the boar as everyone else. There was awe in his face, in everyone faces. Nimmian saw the broken end of his own spear lodged in the beast’s throat. He attacked it from the front!
As the boar vanished from sight, Nimmian saw darkness fall onto Setimika’s eyes. With one lightning-fast move, he turned to fetch Niomir a blow. Niomir had anticipated this, tried to block the attack but exhaustion made him miss the right moment. Setimika’s fist hit straight into Niomir’s plexus, caused him to Hoomph!, stagger and fall to the ground. Setimika gave him a savage kick.
In a heartbeat, other tribesmen descended upon Niomir. Nimmian watched in mute horror as they used their spears like clubs. Dull thumping blows followed in rapid succession. Niomir struggled to protect himself but they were too many and they would not allow him to get up.
Not once did his brother cry out for help. In a way, that made it worse. Nimmian could do nothing but stand and watch.
Flat Face stood by Nimmian and calmly watched it happen. He made no move to stop it.
They only stopped because they grew tired. They picked Niomir up, dragged him to the nearest tree, twisted his arms around it with him facing forward. They tied his wrists together with leather cords. The position must have been excrutiating but Niomir’s face, smeared with blood and bruises as it was, refused to reveal suffering.
Setimika stood above him. Niomir grinned at him through bloody teeth. Setimika bashed him over the face with his large fist. Niomir staggered but refused to fall. He turned back and spat a mouthful of blood into Setimika’s face. Setimika recoiled in revulsion and walked away.
He will not allow them to defeat him, Nimmian thought. A tinge of pride flickered in his breast. No one could defeat him. And that was the problem. He made the whole tribe feel insignificant.
The tribesmen walked past Flat Face and Nimmian, followed the sled’s trail and vanished from sight. The only ones that remained were Nimmian and Flat Face.
Flat Face reached into the folds of his cloak and pulled out an intricately carved flint knife. In that moment, Nimmian knew his life was forfeit. Flat Face had sent everyone away to spare them the ritual pollution of seeing his life’s blood devoured by the cold earth.
Flat Face flipped the blade in his hand and handed it to Nimmian, handle first. Nimmian stared at the knife. He stared at Flat Face’s unyielding face. “This task is yours to perform,” he said in that droning voice of his. Nimmian did not comprehend. The empty moment seemed to be dwelling upon the earth forever.
Nimmian watched his hand take the knife from Flat Face’s own palm. Flat Face gave a slight nod, turned and walked after the others.
Nimmian stared at the knife in his hands. It was not flint as he thought previously at all. It was obsidian, the rare material that came from the west. The tribe had not seen a fresh supply of obsidian ever since Flat Face had closed down the trade with the neighboring tribes. It was ironic to think that Flat Face would possess the last blade in the tribe.
“What are you waiting for?”
Startled, Nimmian looked up. Niomir was looking at him through mated strands of hair. He was smeared with mud and his own blood but there was still resolve in his eyes. Nimmian stared at him.
“Cut me loose and let’s get going,” Niomir said.
“To Isurion’s tribe, where else.” Niomir winced and spat out blood. “I’ve seen the boundary when I dragged the boar. If we move quickly, we can be across before they realize we’re gone.”
Nimmian stared in disbelief. The idea seemed so preposterous, so outrageous, and yet his brother believed it possible. “There are eight territories between us and Isurion’s, all full of tribesmen who will not take kindly to trespassers and poachers,” Nimian said. “If we are caught…”
“Then we better not get caught.”
“You can’t run in your state,” Nimmian said, his voice on the verge of breaking. “You can’t even walk right now. We will be caught.”
“Cut me loose and we shall see which one of us they catch first.” Niomir grinned at him through bloodied teeth as if he hoped his brother would take it as a challenge. But those words struck a different chord in Nimmian’s mind.
For countless seasons, he’d been forced to stand in the background as his proud and skilled brother performed the feats of a true huntsman with little to no effort. Nimmian himself could not muster a single good throw. No matter how hard he would try or how lucky he would get, his brother would just smile and perform the same feat with a hundred times greater ability and a hundred times less effort.
Every night he’d gone asleep with the same thought: How can I possibly be his brother? How can someone of such power, grace and skill be of the same mother and father as myself? I am a trinket of the spirits, being played and discarded at their whim.
But now, I’m the one with the power. When I had betrayed him, it wasn’t power, it was trickery. But now I have a knife in my hand and he is tied to a tree. This time, I decide how this ends.
The feeling of power was delicious, even though on some level he knew the taste was poisonous. Pale-faced and fast-breathing, he stepped behind Niomir and the tree he was tied to. He grabbed the leather strip that bound his brother’s hands and brought the blade down.
And Niomir screamed.