Each step meant another jolt of pain. Scratches and lacerations crisscrossed his flesh but he was astonished he could still walk. The water broke most of his fall but it was also water that pulled him across the surface of sharp rocks that cut him until his whole body felt like one huge wound.
The water had carried him wildly off course, which meant more distance he had to walk across when he finally managed to pull himself out of the current. By the time the finish line was in sight, the sun had set and he walked through murky blackness of the forest.
The fire pits were lit. Men sat around them. Wind brought the scent of roasted meat. His stomach roiled violently – the last meal he’d eaten was at dawn. He forced himself not to care about it and turned his mind blank, nothing but a queer form of pride pushing him on. The finish line had to be reached no matter what.
He didn’t see who spotted him first. Men turned his way, stood up, walked to him. Soon they stood shoulder to shoulder like a wall. How many times did Niomir stand inside that wall, looking on as the loser of the race faced his judgement? He’d stopped counting long ago. At that point, the man who was to be Runted was not a tribesman in his eyes anymore. The outcome of the race caused the transformation. The elder’s declaration was just a formality.
This was the look Niomir now saw in their eyes. That blank, neutral stare he used to wear to shield his soul from feeling the desperation of the man he faced. It was not anger in their eyes, or revulsion. He simply didn’t have a place among them anymore. It was as if his flesh had perished and he’d become a formless spirit.
One of them stepped forward. Niomir expected the frigid glare of Flat Face, the elder of the tribe, but it was Flat Face’s aide who approached him.
Why isn’t Flat Face here? This is his ceremony, he’d always performed it himself.
Whatever the cause, the absence of the elder brought Niomir’s mind back to life. He could never contradict Flat Face directly, but now…
“Just a moment,” Niomir said with a firm voice that caught Flat Face’s aide off guard. “I reject your judgement. I only failed the Winnow because I was attacked.”
The aide froze. This is not how it was supposed to go. “Sabotaging a fellow tribesman is a severe offense,” he said. “Who did this?”
Niomir turned his eye to the wall of men. They did not move but there was confusion on their faces. His eye found Setimika whose smirk spoke for itself. He of all people would relish Niomir’s fall.
Nimmian’s face wasn’t among them but no doubt he was still close. “My brother did this,” Niomir said loudly.
A wave of murmurs swept across the tribesmen. They turned, looking for Nimmian among themselves.
“Can you prove this?” the aide asked.
Niomir turned to the tribesmen. “You all saw me going ahead of you. You know I was faster than you.”
No one spoke for him. Not that Niomir expected it. None of them would deny the fact either, not even Setimika. It would be a lie and no one was reckless enough to commit to a cause he had no stake in.
“If you were ahead of us,” Setimika spoke up, “how come you ended up behind us?”
Niomir could not allow himself to show hesitation. “I hid and waited for my brother.”
“For what purpose?” the aide asked.
Despite his best efforts, Niomir’s resolve faltered for a moment. “I… I couldn’t go on without knowing if he’d made it across the chasm. I waited in case he needed my help.”
“So you hid and let other get ahead of you,” said the aide. “Once you’ve helped him across, what would you have done?”
Niomir refused to hesitate. “I would walk across the line with him at my shoulder.”
The silence was deafening. It seemed to last for hours before the aide spoke again. “You would willingly choose the life of a Runt? Why?”
The wall of men stirred. Slowly, Nimmian emerged through them. His face was weighed with shame but it was curiosity that brought him to the front.
Why did I want to turn myself into a Runt with him? Niomir turned to the aide. “He is the offspring of my mother. We are family.”
The aide’s face twitched. “If you truly share the bond you claim you do, how would he be capable of betraying you as you claim?”
Niomir found himself dangling on the edge of the chasm once again, looking up at Nimmian. Anger erupted inside him. His gaze wandered to where Nimmian stood among the others. Nimmian’s face was a blank mask and he refused to look at him. Sweat poured down his face.
Why would he do this? The anger that bloomed in his heart made him want to accuse Nimmian of being the most profound villain but even as he thought of doing it, he knew it wasn’t true. His brother was a man whose actions were dictated by fear. Where did that fear come from?
“Because some people are driven to desperate measures by desperate circumstances.” He could not believe what was coming out of his mouth. “It is wrong to make men of a tribe compete against each other in such hideous circumstances.” The men stared at him. They knew what was coming and could not believe one of them would speak openly of this.
“This is not a contest. It is a crime.”
The aide finally understood what was happening. He bristled and faced the tribesmen.
“The Runts are a condition required from us by the spirits. We are of the Forest and live by the spirits’ decree.” He was clearly reciting from lore, trying to get on top of the situation. “In their wisdom, the spirits had decreed that only a third part of the tribe is to carry weapons and hunt. The rest are required to perform other tasks, important to our survival.” He turned back to Niomir, confident. “There is no shame in becoming a Runt.”
Niomir refused to back down. “Then why did my brother rather betray me than become one?” He looked at the men. “My brother is not the villain here. He’s a victim, just like every one of us here. Just like everyone who has already been proclaimed a Runt and forced into submission.”
More silence. They could hear the distant squeak of an owl.
“This isn’t going to end,” Niomir told them, standing boldly before them. “More and more of us will be Runted and fewer of us will be allowed to hunt. Our numbers do not change. It will not be long before all of us are rutting in the dirt and ranging the Forest is nothing but a distant memory.”
With each word he uttered, Niomir felt his anger dissolve. The men that listened fell more raptly under his spell. It seemed the entire tribe was there, listening to him, ready to discard the wretched Runt status.
That was when the men parted in haste. In the empty space between them, a single gaunt figure appeared and stepped forward. A cowl covered his head, casting the face into shadow. A staff in his hand ended in a large bulge. Niomir felt his resolve shatter like a fallen icicle.
“Your words betray your anger for the spirits,” said the elder of Winter Boar tribe with his notorious monotone voice. “You believed yourself above their judgment. Now the spirits have shown you your error. In your arrogance, you will attempt anything to turn our decision. But it is not our decision. It is the decision of the spirits. They’ve seen through your pride and deemed you unworthy to carry a spear.”
With tremendous effort, Niomir turned and addressed the elder of his tribe directly. “If the spirits want me Runted, why do they not strike me down for speaking falsehood?”
Flat Face extended a long thin finger and pointed it at Niomir’s chest. “But they have struck you down. You are cut and bleeding as you speak. They have made you fall for hearing the arrogance of your mind. They could have easily taken your life for such blasphemous thoughts. The only reason you still live is that you might atone for your impurity and serve the tribe. If they’d killed you now, they would only grant you your wish. No, your place is determined.”
Niomir looked to the men for silent supplication. The spell he cast over them was already broken by Flat Face’s icy resolve. They were once more a solid front of blank faces, unyielding and alien. Nimmian stood among them, his face betraying not a single shred of remorse.
As in a dream, Niomir watched Flat Face approach him. The elder raised the bulge of his totem staff in front of Niomir’s face. By this, he blocked Niomir’s view of the rest of the men. Nothing seemed to exist but the dour face of the totem spirit that was carved on it.
“You will join the others of your class, Runt.”