Niomir was going down a slight slope, leaving the favourable heights behind him. He didn’t need to take this route. He was already ahead of most of the men. The only thing that was important was to finish the Race. But it would feel wrong not to take this advantage since it posed no trouble to him.
After all, that’s what the Winnow was all about. It was not designed to separate the strong from the weak but the gifted from the unfortunate. That’s why the path was designed this way. A man could prove his endurance by going around the long way or prove his courage, wit and balance to risk the dangerous path.
His lungs heaved in a regular rhythm. Sweat poured from him in torrents but there was no need to reach for the water gourd that was slapping against his thigh just yet. The ache in his muscles was a delicious melody. His eyes scanned continuously for treacherous roots. Branches swiped at him. He dodged them gracefully without braking his stride.
One more treeline slipped past him and there was the chasm, right in front of him. A single felled tree led across it, its lower branches cut clean to present a likely path. The successor sapling grew next to it.
[Whenever Alvor deliberately fell a tree, they will plant a successor sapling in the same spot. The sapling is a direct clone of the felled tree so in essence it is the same tree. Alvor never cut down the entire tree – their tools are not good enough. They will dig it out, usually if the tree is already damaged.]
Most of the Winter Boar tribesmen relied on speed and endurance and took the long way around. Niomir trusted his superior balance to take him across a shorter, more dangerous path.
This is too easy, Niomir thought as he danced across the tree. The water rustled beneath him but it was not enough to make him hesitate. A few more steps and he was across and on solid ground. While most others were tromping around the gorge, adding at least 10 leagues to the their path, he had but one more league to go.
He was about to spring into motion when a thought made him hesitate. Nimmian would no doubt take the same route. It was his only chance to come up ahead, even if it meant risking the rickety path across the chasm. But unlike Niomir, Nimmian’s balance was far from perfect.
Niomir turned to face the chasm he’d crossed so effortlessly. Someone was approaching but there were too many trees in between to see who it was yet.
Maybe it’s Nimmian.
A part of him wanted to turn and race for the finish line. The other part of him knew that he could not move on without making certain if it was indeed his brother or not who approached.
And if it’s not him? I’m allowing someone to get ahead of me.
A moment later Niomir ducked into the shrubbery close by and concealed his presence.
There are others who are still between me and the last place. I can afford to wait for a bit.
Finally, the tribesman appeared among the trees. It’s not Nimmian. Niomir’s muscles coiled to spring out of the shrub before the tribesman reached solid ground and make for the finish. A thought stopped him.
He would see me. In this one’s eyes, what reason would I have for concealing myself and then fleeing as he appeared? If this man reports my behavior to Flat Face, I might be suspected of foul play.
The thought was enough for Niomir to lay still while the tribesman jumped off the tree and gasped his way past.
Silence once more enveloped him. I should head out. I will not achieve anything by sitting here. Nimmian’s fate is in his own hands.
And yet the plan to take Nimmian to the Runt tribe returned to his thoughts. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but the only thing that could be done.
And what will Flat Face do when I come back? He will ask me where have I gone and why I disappeared on the same day as Nimmian. I could hide Nimmian somewhere and then move him out once the tribesmen had stopped hunting him. Won’t work either. As soon as he vanishes, I shall be suspect. They will keep an eye on me to make sure I’m not hiding him anywhere.
The more he tried to think it through, the more it was obvious that if he tried to help his brother, he would suffer for it.
I’m over-thinking this. There are still others to come. He might yet be in front of someone and not be Runted after all.
Another tribesman came stumbling into the clearing. This one nearly lost his balance twice as he inched along the tree but managed to catch himself both times. Niomir watched him from his vantage and nearly ripped his nerves into shreds. Why did he even choose this path if he does not possess the balance to cross it? But the answer was obvious. Because this is his only chance.
After that, more tribesmen came stumbling out of the woods and crabbed across the felled tree. Each time another ran past him, Niomir cringed inside at the thought of allowing someone to get ahead of him. They came so close one to another that he couldn’t break out unseen.
What if Nimmian chose to go around the long way with the bulk of the tribesmen? No, that wouldn’t make sense. He couldn’t possibly keep up with all the fastest runners of the tribe. What I need to do is be gone from here or I will end up being the tribesman stupid enough to give up his hunting rights willingly.
As soon as the last tribesman crossed the chasm and vanished from sight, Niomir sprung to his feet and yanked the branches of the shrub aside. That was when another tribesman appeared on the opposite side of the chasm. Niomir froze midstep. Nimmian. He could’ve easily seen him if he were paying attention to what was in front of him. Yet his head was turned halfway back, glancing behind him. Before his looked ahead again, Niomir quickly retreated back into the brush, making sure the branches of the shrub did not make too much of a sound.
Another tribesman came gasping out of the treeline, trying hard to keep up with Nimmian’s pace. Niomir saw that this one had a distinct limp on his right leg. He could see the man’s grim face and the veins of his neck were apparent. He looked to be in pain. He was probably ahead of his competition until his misfortune.
If I wait until both are gone ahead, I can still overcome the limper and avoid being declared a Runt this way. What will I tell Nimmian when he asks why I’m behind him?
Nimmian reached the felled tree without allowing the limper to close in on him. He mounted the fallen trunk and began to proceed timidly across the chasm. The limper reached the tree a few moments later. He had difficulties maintaining balance with his damaged leg but grim determination propelled him on.
Nimmian kept glancing back at his competitor which made his progress riskier. It’s not his balance that’s suffering. He’s grown clumsy from fear alone.
It seemed to take an eternity for Nimmian to cross the chasm. At last, with solid ground just barely beneath him, he jumped off the trunk… and his foot slipped just over the edge of the chasm. He yelled out and grabbed for the successor sapling just in time. Wide-eyed, Niomir dashed out of cover but he stopped himself before he revealed himself completely. The limper was still there, crawling across the tree on all fours. If he should see him…
Niomir nearly tore himself in two as his brother dangled by his fingers across the lip of the chasm. The sapling was not tough enough to last for much longer. The tiny tree’s roots were being ripped out by every moment.
At last, the limper was across. He threw himself off the tree awkwardly with his good leg, rolled on the ground and slowly got up. For a moment, he turned towards Nimmian as if contemplating to help him. He turned away and limped out of sight.
Niomir ripped through the brush that concealed him and dashed for Nimmian. He threw himself on the ground belly first, used his right arm to grab on the root of the felled trunk and reached down for Nimmian’s exhausted fingers with his left.
“What are you doing here?” Nimmian rasped.
“Shut up and grab on!”
Nimmian grasped his hand and both pulled. Pain shot through Niomir’s shoulders. His gut nearly tore in two but he managed to lift Nimmian up. As soon as Nimmian’s shoulders were over the lip of the chasm, he could grab on the roots as well and lighten the load.
Finally, both collapsed on the bank of the chasm, struggling for air.
“Are we the last ones?” Niomir asked, his air wheezing.
“Yes,” Nimmian said, defeat plain in his voice. He turned to Niomir. “Why did you come back for me?”
“Because we are brothers and we will always be brothers, declaration of spirits be damned.”
“That man wasn’t going very fast. We still have a chance to overcome him if we…”
Niomir cut him off. “If you are not Runted now, you will be in a few seasons when Flat Face decides the tribe needs more Runts. No. We shall walk across the finish line together. We shall both be turned to Runts, wait out the winter and in the spring we shall leave this place behind and join the tribe of Runts.”
Nimmian got up to his feet, leaned on his knees and breathed heavily. “You mean Isurion’s mongrels?”
“Better that than to give up my hunting spear, don’t you think?” Niomir chuckled. He reached up. Nimmian took his hand and grabbed it firmly. Niomir put his weight on one foot and made to rise. He expected that Nimmian’s hand would pull him up. Instead, it shoved him down and back. Caught off guard, Niomir lost his balance and stumbled backwards. The chasm yawned behind him. He lost footing and fell, legs first. In the last moment, he grabbed that same sapling that Nimmian nearly tore out moments before.
Niomir’s legs dangled in open air, unable to grab purchase on anything. He tried to grab on the felled tree’s root but it was out of his reach. Each time he lunged to grab the root, the sapling shuddered in his hand.
Niomir looked up at Nimmian, his face a mask of shock. Nimmian looked down on him. There were tears in his eyes but he made no move to help him up.
“I don’t want to be a Runt, brother,” Nimmian said. “But you seem to be looking forward to it.”
And Nimmian turned his back on him and ran for the finish line. He disappeared in the treeline before Niomir could blink.
The sound of ripping, a jerk in his clenched fist and suddenly he was weightless. The felled tree flew upward. His vision was swallowed by the twilight of the chasm.