Norgilam watched Niomir choke down the last of the porridge. “I knew you would come around,” he said with a smile. “You’re too strong to wallow forever. You will be walking by spring.” Niomir glanced at him but said nothing, busy with the final morsels.
His stomach nearly revolted on him every time he ate but he forced it down. He may have tricked Norgilam but he could not hide his despondency from his own flesh.
Through the days after his mutilation, his spirit was a leaf, pulled underwater. Every time he would attempt to sleep, the desolate land was there, the chasm waiting for him. He could not avoid it, plead with it, reason with it. He managed to wake just before the chasm swallowed him. The nights left him exhausted.
The chasm was Flat Face. It was Norgilam, the juvenile, the Runts, Setimika and his men.
All of it.
The chasm was living death. It was the place from which his spirit, should it fall, could never rise from. He would be reduced to a mess of fluids and ligaments, breathing and eating but not living.
If he stayed, that was his fate, inevitable as the sunset.
The only possible alternative was escape. Such a simple word and yet to achieve it?
Madness. But a living, beating madness.
It would not be easy. First, he would have to wait for good weather. Outside the hut, winter howled like a dying beast, writhing in its final throes.
He would have to wait until the tribesmen were occupied or dispersed so they could not corner him.
He would also have to find a way to shed whoever Flat Face would set to watch over him.
It would not be easy. He dared not think of what Flat Face would do to him if he were captured. If a miracle did happen and Niomir reached the boundary, he would be faced with nothing but another territory, another tribe that would treat him with equal disdain as his own. What they would do with him if they found him was anyone’s guess.
As soon as he would leave the settlement, he would need to flee and could not stop until there was life still trapped in his flesh. The only place where his flight could stop were the swamps where Isurion and his outcasts dwelt. But that was at least a moon of walk away.
Niomir harbored no illusions he could make it that far but he wouldn’t let that stop him from doing everything in his power to try.
But first, he would have to make Norgilam stop hovering about him. Perhaps it was guilt that kept him close. Escaping this attention was the reason why he shoved the food down his throat despite the desire to throw it all back up.
Norgilam still thought him weak, which meant everyone else still thought him weak. If the revolting porridge was the only thing he’d consumed it might have been true. But Niomir had also devoured the boar’s heart Flat Face had brought.
You’ve been gone long enough for the smell to disappear, Niomir thought, glancing at Norgilam. His bruised body healed faster because of that.
Niomir had told Flat Face he would rather starve than eat what he’d offered and he’d meant it but the thought of escape was enough to make him swallow his pride. If eating the heart increased his chances of escaping this place, he would accept it.
A terrible sound came from outside. It sounded like the earth itself was being rendered. Norgilam rose to his feet and turned for the door as a Runt dashed in and closed the door quickly. “The wind tore off a roof of one of the huts.”
“Will you be all right by yourself?” said Norgilam.
“I’ll be fine,” said Niomir, his focus still on the gourd, licking off the last of the porridge.
Norgilam nodded, followed the Runt outside and carefully shut the door behind him.
As soon as he was alone, Niomir dropped the gourd and stood up. His cracked ribs throbbed and his fatigued muscles protested but he willed himself to movement despite it all.
It seemed to take hours to lace up his leggings with just his good hand. He had to hold the laces with his teeth to finish the job. He took the blanket he’d used ever since they brought him back, wrapped himself with it.
He pressed his ear to the door. Nothing but the howling of wind. He opened the door and dashed outside.
The force and the cold of the blizzard slapped him across the face. Propelled by the wind, snowflakes collided with his eyes, making his sight useless. Guided by memory alone, he turned for where the forest line should be.
The serious setback of his plan was that Runts were rarely alone. A torn roof was a rare event that demanded everyone’s attention. They would also find it difficult to track him in such weather.
There would not be an opportunity like this again.
The longer he postponed his flight, the more time he gave Flat Face to weave a web around him. But at the moment he was still considered a cripple, deemed too feeble to stand, let alone run. Flat Face had probably not set a watch over him yet.
The blizzard provided him with excellent cover, the torn roof with time. It could be half a day before they had figured out he was gone. This might be his only chance.
The wind thrashed him about like a great frigid palm. With his back bent low, he walked with a slow pace to conserve his strength.
The moment they would learn of his escape, they would take after him. They would guess of his intentions immediately and head for the western boundary. The tribesmen would be faster than him and they would catch him before he reached it. Which was why Niomir fled in the opposite direction. Before they would think of looking for him on the eastward side, he would already be across the border.
The wind buffeted him from every direction. Niomir stumbled and fell, got up and kept going. A terrifying groan came from up ahead. A tree broke in half and crashed directly in his path.
Are you trying to humble me, spirits? You are far too late for that. I will not turn back, no matter what you throw at me. If you want me among you, be done with it. At least then I will be able to spit in your face. If there is spit in the spirit world.
He came upon a clearing when the wind momentarily abated. In the calm, he recognized the sight. It was littered with collapsed trees, mounds of leaves and dirt, yet it was that same clearing where the finish line of the Runt race was drawn. Here is where the tribe awaited him, the loser of the Winnow, as he limped towards them. It was here Flat Face shoved the totem staff into his face, proclaimed him Runt, then broke his spear and discarded the pieces.
A profound sense of loss enveloped him. Here was where he’d lost his freedom, his sense of place. He dropped to his knees and let his hand graze the debris that had gathered there.
His fingers brushed against a smooth surface the size of his fingernail. He picked it up, looked at it. It was a single bead of obsidian.
Astonishing. This had been the charm on his spear. After all this time, it was still exactly where the pieces of his spear were discarded.
A gust of wind brought men’s voices. So much for them going the wrong way.
Niomir got to his feet, clutched the obsidian nugget in his good hand and stumbled on.
The wind picked up again. Whenever it would blow into his back, it would make him go faster but it would also bring sounds of the pursuit.
They were getting closer.
At last, he reached what he was looking for. The chasm was right in front of him. For a moment, the scene was so similar to the one in his dreams he froze in fear. But the chasm of his dreams had no tree leading over it. This one did. It was slippery with ice and snow, not an easy crossing. But a crossing.
Niomir turned. The men’s voices were very close now, probably no more than a few spear tosses. He saw movement between the naked branches.
He turned forward and raised his face to the heavens. If you want me to discard this wretched body right now, all you have to do is nudge.
He lifted his foot and placed it on the slippery log. The tree twitched as he put his weight on it but it held still. Niomir made a few hesitant steps, unsure of his once superb balance.
The chasm yawned beneath him. The world spun around him and he knelt quickly, grabbed the log with his hands.
It’s not the chasm from the dreams, he told himself. This one will only destroy your body if you fall. It will not devour your soul.
“There he is!”
His pursuit has arrived. This renewed his strength. Slowly, he rose and continued to walk.
You aren’t afraid of the chasm, he told himself. You’re afraid of being caught and being brought to Flat Face. His pace quickened, slippery surface be damned.
For a heartbeat, his feet were light as they once were and he danced gracefully across the chasm as if there was no chasm beneath him.
Niomir touched the ground on the other side of the chasm and turned. The pursuers had already gathered on the opposite edge. They glared at him, threw curses and threats but not one of them dared to step onto the tree.
During the Winnow, these ones all chose the safe route.
That was when Setimika pushed to the fore. He issued no threat but his gaze was menacing enough. Niomir waited. He knew Setimika would try to cross the chasm. His pride demanded it but would his balance hold out? Judging by his expression, Setimika was thinking the same thing.
Setimika barked for silence. He moved to the tree and waited. Slowly, the noise subsided.
Niomir saw him swallow. Setimika climbed on the fallen trunk and inched forward. Every time the wind picked up, he crouched and grabbed on with his hands so as not to lose balance.
Niomir watched his progress impassively. It was clear to him that should Setimika make it across, he would easily overpower Niomir. He might not be able to drag him back across the chasm but he would drag him around the long way if he had to. Or he would wait for the others to make the round trip and drag him to Flat Face together.
After he made it across the chasm, Niomir saw a sliver of chance to escape Flat Face’s wrath. Now, with each Setimika’s hesitant step, that sliver shrunk.
Niomir raised his good hand and pressed it flat on the trunk. Setimika raised his eyes and met Niomir’s gaze in a moment of profound stillness.
Setimika’s foot slipped. He waved his outstretched arms wildly, maintained his balance for a moment. Then it gave out and he fell. In the final moment, he tried to grab the tree as he fell past but the wood was slippery and there were no branches for purchase.
Setimika made no sound as the chasm swallowed him. There was a long moment of silence.
They heard the crack from below.
Niomir watched the cluster of wide eyes on the other side of the chasm. The moment dragged for eternity.
At last, one of the tribesmen moved. He took off at an accelerating pace along the gorge. Some of them followed him. Others left in the same direction they’d come from. Niomir watched them leave until only one of them remained.
He stared at Niomir with a tortured expression. Niomir returned his silent gaze for a time, then he turned and walked away from the chasm.
He turned. “Why not?”
“We need you,” Nimmian blurted. “I need you.”
Niomir stared. He shook his head. “You need to see me crawling in the dirt in your stead. That is the only thing that keeps you from going insane.”
In a spurt of anger – or was it bravery? – Nimmian made to climb the log but only after a step he careened wildly and just barely managed to jump back to safety. He stared into the blackness that had just devoured Setimika, his eyes wide with terror
The wind abated, almost as if the spirits themselves were eager to hear the rest of the conversation.
“We will starve without you,” Nimmian pleaded.
“Yes, you will,” said Niomir, his voice flat and uninterested. “But that is no longer my concern. You made certain of that when you did this.” He lifted his mutilated hand.
They stared at each other.
“Where will you go?” Nimmian asked in a small voice.
“Does it matter?” Niomir said.
“Whoever finds you, will end you for trespassing.” It almost sounded as a threat.
Niomir nodded. “Most likely, yes.”
“Then why do this?” Nimmian begged.
For a long moment, Niomir said nothing. Ice crystals swirled around them. The world held its breath.
“Because I would rather be murdered by them than to be taken apart one finger at a time by you.”
“I didn’t want to do it!” Nimmian shouted, his voice shrill as if he were the wounded one. “Flat Face forced me! He said if I didn’t do it, he would… take your whole hand.”
“Why would you care what he did to me?”
The rims of Nimmian’s eyes turned red. “Because you are my brother! I’ve always loved you!”
“Even when you betrayed me? Even when you mutilated me?”
Stricken, Nimmian nodded.
Niomir managed a sneer. “So you mutilated me out of brotherly love, is that what you’re saying?”
Nimmian’s face bobbed stupidly. “Yes.”
For some strange reason, Niomir believed him. Something stirred within him where the love for his brother used to be. It was now nothing but an ugly stump, even uglier than his hand.
“If this is what your love looks like, brother…” Niomir raised his mutilated hand between them. “…, you can keep it for yourself.”
He turned and walked away. Words followed him but he paid them no mind. Whoever uttered them was a stranger anyway.