In fits and starts, Niomir dragged a broken beech, thick as his arm, through the forest. It was only twice his height while it still lived but it was still heavy enough to force him into regular pauses. I should have tried to bring one that was closer, he thought a hundredth time this day. But there are no more dead trees close to the settlement.
It turned out he was as good a hunter of dead trees as he was once a hunter of live game. Naked branches of the beech brushed across the path, the path itself gouged through the underbrush by his previous ‘kills’.
Grower had proclaimed him the ‘main procurer of firewood’. At first, Niomir failed to understand why. “It’s important that you manage through the first year,” Grower had explained. “It gets easier after.”
Niomir snorted. I don’t want it to become easier.
His hunter’s instincts came to life every time the trees closed around him. It was painful to not act on those urges but at least he still possessed them. He feared the day when they would not awaken.
The sun smiled coldly from behind a coat of clouds. The days had grown shorter and would grow shorter still. The canopies above were already empty of leaves. Naked branches swayed in the wind, dry wood creaked and groaned. The woods were not a pleasant place anymore.
He passed through the tree line out onto the plain. The lake of grass looked as if a herd of game had trampled it. The wind had grown stronger and more savage. More often than not it would turn into a howling monster that would rage across the plain all night. Now Niomir saw the sense of building huts out of clay. A structure of straw or wood would have been blown to bits by the first gust. But the wind blew around the clay houses, leaving them standing though it still worn them down with time.
A sound made him look up from his path. A group of tribesmen was coming his way. He knew them all. Setimika eyed him as they passed each other but said nothing. Niomir glanced at the spears in their hands. Hunting.
The rest of them gave him is a look he could not make sense of. It almost seemed as if they regretted that he wouldn’t be coming with them.
It was easy once you could tag along and take the credit for my kills. Half the time you ate because of my scouting and my spear throw.
It was a proud thought but it gave him no pleasure. It wasn’t just the tribesmen’s bellies that needed filling. There were plenty of Runts who were in dire need of some genuine meat.
The juvenile was one of them. He usually accompanied Niomir to his wood fetching ventures. Today he’d remained behind, too weak to get up from his matress.
By the time Niomir dragged the broken tree to the nearest hut, the hunting party had vanished in the tree line. He made for the smallest hut where they kept the tools. He walked around to the entrance, about to enter, fetch the heaviest stone axe the tribe possessed and chop up his prize. That’s when he heard voices coming from inside the hut. At first, he saw no reason not to disturb the conversation. It wasn’t his concern who gets interrupted or why. His resolve faltered when he recognized the voices. One was Grower’s.
The other voice belonged to Flat Face.
“This is your fault,” Flat Face droned.
“Tribesmen are wasting food,” Grower spat. “If they didn’t, we would’ve had more.”
Niomir was rooted to the spot. He knew he shouldn’t be listening but he also knew they might hear him if he moved now.
“Do not try to weasel your way out.” Flat Face’s voice contained much more emotion than what Niomir was used to. “Your incompetence has led us to this situation.”
Grower snorted. “If you think beating me with that rod of yours will fix the situation, go ahead. Otherwise, don’t waste time lecturing me on something not in my control.”
Niomir was rigid – no one had dared to speak to Flat Face like this before, not in his presence.
“What do you suggest?” Flat Face’s voice was tight with self-control.
“We start rationing the remaining food,” Grower offered.
“Not an option.” Flat Face’s retort was immediate. “Tribesmen need to be well fed if they are to repulse a raid.”
“You don’t even know if a raid is coming.”
“Are you willing to wager the future of the tribe on me being wrong?”
“The future of the tribe will be bleak indeed if we are all starving by the next moon’s turn.”
The silence inside the hut stretched on. If the conversation was at an end, Niomir needed to move away from the hut entrance. Instinctively, he fell into his stalking stride. He prowled away from the hut but slowly enough that he was still close enough to hear the rest.
“We will put the Runts on rations,” Flat Face spoke. “That will prolong your food stores.”
“If all the tribesmen eat as before,” Grower said, “Runts will be forced to starve.”
“If that’s what it takes,” Flat Face said, his voice flat as a lake and just as cold.
Niomir heard the door flap move, saw Flat Face walk away. He moved behind the closest hut just in time before Grower emerged as well. He walked past Niomir’s tree without taking notice.
Niomir’s mind was awash with what he’d heard. How could Grower talk so harshly to Flat Face and yet allow himself be beaten for a trifle? Did they have an arrangement of some kind? What did Flat Face offer to Grower in return for obedience?
Or offered not to do?
The two of them had discussed the food shortages. The situation had been growing more desperate with each day. As winter approached, wind and rain had damaged huts. The Runts labored incessantly to patch the damages but there were now twice as many huts to maintain. Instead of spending the winter safe in their shelters, they were forced to labour outside. Exposure to the elements was terrible on them but lack of food was worse.
With malnutrition came disease. Many Runts and even some tribesmen had fallen ill, the juvenile among them. Work on hut maintenance began to fall behind. Huts remained in permanent disrepair. With everyone working on the shelters, filth and mould accumulated inside. This caused shortening of tempers which have not helped the situation at all.
Niomir did not find it strange that Flat Face had decided to send out hunting parties even though chances of them making meat were close to nothing. Only truly desperate animals would dare to venture close to the settlements at this time of year. There were beasts further into the forest but Flat Face would not allow any hunting party to leave for more than a day. And even if he did, none of the tribesmen possessed the tracking and hunting skills to come near enough to a beast to manage a successful spear throw.
No. The thought alone was preposterous. Flat Face would never allow it. He would beat Niomir with that rod of his just for suggesting it.
What if Flat Face was not so impervious to other people’s opinions as he made it seem?
What if Niomir talked to Flat Face alone, with no one around to witness the exchange?
Only one way to find out.
He’d already noticed that Flat Face made a regular patrol of the other Runt settlements to quell arguments and kept the situation from getting out of control. He was so regular that Niomir could predict him coming and so far made a point to be absent when Flat Face completed his round and returned to this particular settlement. He did not know if Grower or Flat Face had noticed this particularity.
If he could time it correctly, Niomir could casually meet Flat Face out on the plain without anyone around to see or hear them.
Niomir spent several nights tossing in his sleep, thinking about his plan. He might have chosen not to do it at all if the juvenile’s health had not deteriorated. His cough become drier and coarser and his fever increased. Niomir could not bear seeing the young one suffer, knowing there was something he could do about it.
On the eighth day after he accidentally eavesdropped on the conversation between Flat Face and Grower, Niomir stood at the edge of the treeline, hidden from sight. He stood far away from the edge of the grass lake so that the steam of his breath would not betray his presence. The sky was dark. Occasional snowflakes drifted past his face. He’d dragged in another young tree, broken by the winds, and was now waiting for the right moment to stage an ‘accidental’ meeting.
He saw Flat Face approach from the direction of the adjacent settlement. He grabbed the tree and dragged it out in the open. Without looking up, he heaved his load through the tall grass, now dry and crackling underneath his tread. The fangs of late autumn wind cut through his furs. His hair caught an occasional snowflake.
He reached the path that connected his settlement with the adjacent one, barely visible in the distance, and turned to approach his home. Flat Face was far behind him but the going was slow and before Niomir got any nearer, Flat Face caught up to him, walked around him, began to move onward.
“I saw a hunting party go out today,” Niomir said out loud.
Flat Face stopped and turned. His expression was bland as always.
“Not hunting,” Flat Face droned. “They went to scout the wintering caves.” He began to turn away.
“You don’t fight a cave flooding with a spear,” Niomir said a tinge too loudly. “They went hunting and brought nothing back. As the day before and the day before that.”
Flat Face faced him. This time, Niomir saw a shade of anger on his face. Careful.
“Your point?” Flat Face murmured.
“Send me out to hunt instead,” Niomir said.
“Runts are not allowed to hunt.” Flat Face’s voice thundered in Niomir’s ears no matter that he wasn’t shouting. He couldn’t help noticing a few snowflakes, caught in Flat Face’s hair. They did not melt. He’s too cold a person for that.
“You could allow it personally,” Niomir said. “Put a spear in my hand and I will bring you meat. All I ask is that you feed the heart to those Runts who are ill. You can give the rest of it to the tribesmen.”
A strange look passed across Flat Face’s features. “Why would you go through all the trouble of hunting and not demand a piece for yourself?”
“Because if the tribesmen eat meat,” Niomir said, “there will be more bread for the Runts.”
Flat Face’s face remained an unblinking stone for more than a few moments. Niomir realized this was utter astonishment for him.
“The laws of the spirits are clear,” Flat Face finally said but there was a tinge of hesitation in his voice. “You are a Runt. Runts are forbidden to carry weapons.”
“I have more skill in tracking than anyone else in this tribe,” Niomir said. “Do the right decision and feed the tribe through my hands.”
Niomir saw Flat Face’s eyebrow twitch. There was emotion there, bubbling just underneath the surface! It was as if his mind had become a battle ground, several thoughts fighting for supremacy. Niomir even noticed the snowflakes on Flat Face’s face were slowly but noticeably melting. Instinctively, Niomir held his breath.
But then the bubbling vanished from Flat Face’s features. Once more, Niomir stared at a blank mask. Once more, the snowflakes began to gather on Flat Face’s forehead. “What will happen with the tribe if I start to make exceptions with rules?” he asked, placing words like stones. “Rules are here for a purpose. If I allow you to carry weapons, you will want something else from me tomorrow. Or someone else will.”
Before he could control himself, Niomir sneered with barely contained fury. “So you will let your tribe starve.”
“I will keep my tribe’s traditions and preserve my people through hardships they occasionally face.” Flat Face glanced at the totem staff in his hand. The rod with which he’d beaten Grower was still fastened to it. “And I will keep the occasional malcontents in line by any means necessary.” He turned away, continuing his stride.
Niomir returned to the hut, frustration tearing at him. He peeled off the working furs, hung them to dry. He sat on his mat and chewed on his meagre portion of the flat bread.
His eye drifted to the juvenile lying close by. His face was pale, making him seem even younger than he was. The young one shuddered and coughed. It was the sound of stone scraping against stone. He won’t last a moon if he doesn’t get any real food.
The ragged breathing of the juvenile kept him awake all night. He saw Grower come and check on him but there was nothing that could be done.