“Rebga the Hale swam up the Pointed River from its mouth. After he dried himself, he declared, ‘That served no purpose at all.’”
-Whiteshore folk tree one hundred fifty five
Barnarr scraped a foot against a sheaf of bark, and cursed inside.
The springer and young didn’t even look in his direction, just started prancing away. He lifted his spear, asked that the Destroyers turn their gaze from him, and hurled it as hard as he’d ever thrown anything in his life. Before it hit, he had already snatched the next, and prepared to hurl it as well.
By all that was good, the throw was either luckier than he deserved, or more skilled than he consciously realized.
The weapon flew true. It didn’t take the springer neatly in the lungs or heart, but it struck her high in the leg, a hobbling blow. She tripped over a sharp upthrust of stone as she fluted distress. Her two young kept going even faster. Their mother was their source of guidance and protection, but now they would have to fend for themselves.
Unless they slowed down - then Barnarr would catch and eat their delicious little legs.
He quickly closed in, mindful of the springer’s tendency to kick and buck, and plunged his spear into her side. She stopped her limping flight, and an eye cast back at him. A groan seeped free, a skin leaking the last of its water. She fell, and didn’t have to bleed for long before he ended her suffering.
Smaller than he would have liked. Larger than he could easily carry back in the remaining daylight.
Well, braves didn’t stick around for long if they drew the line at “easy.”
Before his silent panting slowed, he made a few carefully placed cuts. Then he turned the body over, adding a few more. He stood it up against a tree. In a moment, he’d set bags to catch the majority of the draining blood, and rested from his efforts for a few deep breaths.
The woods of the edge of Whiteshore lands didn’t have many things stirring now, despite their recent vibrant noises. Blood-scent and violence did wonders to chase off forest dwellers, except for things that might want to rob Barnarr. That was why he braced himself with his spear when he leaned against the thick old tree.
His tribe weren’t the only ones having to work hard for food this season.
By the time he’d drained and saved as much as he was willing to take from the carcass under the circumstances, the sun had shifted just a tiny bit, and he was itching to leave. His travois came together, sticks and fastenings and netting. The weight on his back lessened that tiny bit, and in anticipation he tensed his muscles for the greater weight he’d shortly be hauling.
A flutter overhead stopped him. With a grunt, he bound the sloshing bags to his waist and leered around.
The shadow that flapped to the ground almost got speared through the keel. Barnarr wasn’t in the mood for interruptions. However, he also wasn’t in the mood for more violence than needed to get his haul back home.
“Hey, get! Don’t bother me, this is mine!”
The smallish black shape of the flockfolk hopped back, longtoed feet skating over the rock and feathers unfurling. A thin sash went around the neck and between the legs. Little baubles dangled from it. A roughly knotted pouch distended over the sash’s length, slack with stomach-empty needing.
“Nothing for you, go find your own.”
He grabbed up his knife again and began the last of his duties. The forelegs of springers had less meat, so the end of one of them came off under his well-sharpened blade. It didn’t take long to find a suitable cloistering of stones, and then he buried the foot in the small cairn.
With any fortune, like would call to like, and other springers might decide to follow their precedents’ path here, and the tribe might be better able to feed themselves in the coming days.
The flockfolk shouted a sawing insult, or maybe some sort of entreaty. He didn’t know, he hadn’t the ear for their languages, and even if he did he wasn’t interested in giving gifts for the sake of it. His charity started and ended at not kicking or throwing rocks. With difficulty, he gave the little burglar an even stare as he hefted the carcass over his shoulders, then began dragging it onto the travois. Ropes lashed tight, and he pulled them around himself.
A cool stone in his chest tried to tug in the direction of the flockfolk, and he sighed.
If the Whiteshore camp got inundated with a whole mess of flapping flailing squalling thieves anytime soon, he knew who’d be to blame.
His trusty knife carved off just a scrap of flesh from the shortened springer foreleg. Thin, though as long as his hand, he didn’t bother trying to peel the skin and fur off it. It weighed half of nothing, and probably would be missed a quarter of not-at-all.
The flockfolk leapt back as the thin morsel landed where spindly feet had just perched. In far less than a heartbeat, the bobbing beak snapped up the offering, and each wing’s single finger assisted in tearing it to shreds. By the time Barnarr started regretting giving the small gift, it had long since vanished. The flockfolk took off, after a cursory inspection of the ground for tidbits. No meat scraps, no viscera he’d let go to waste; the creature’s time was better spent foraging elsewhere.
Lugging the springer home, he kept looking over his shoulder. Nothing came whiffling through the forest toward him. No striking smells besides sap and rock and water ran the wind. He could hear nothing that suggested peril. He wasn’t scared, merely resigned. If he slowed down for any reason, he’d almost certainly have to fend off other opportunistic mouths. His tail straightened at the thought.
The slow progress of the sun had him worried right until he rose the hill of the last valley before camp. In the low bruised clouds, day barely tipped over into dusk, sharp light knives making him hunch his shoulders. The shallow rock-dotted valley had no fog this late in the day. His steps lightened as he crossed the final stretch, and he breathed to the bottom of his lungs as he set foot on his people’s camp. He scanned the long twin line of low lodges, the fire ring and the ashen corona it cast into the grass, the small groups of people tending and mending and minding.
His expression wasn’t happy when he saw only two other hunters had managed to recently bring game. Considerably less than three hundred souls made up the Whiteshore camp, and they had stores they still hadn’t touched, but those stores wouldn’t hold them for more than ten days’ needs without a great deal of supplementing. At the extreme inland edge of the camp, the plots sneaked off toward the wilds and trees, but they’d need some time yet before their roots might do the people any good.
To balance the leanness of the fields and wilds, the waters gave a little more than usual. Leather and fish meat hung out to cure in the salty breeze. They’d be eating a good deal of things that swam for a while.
He lugged the springer over to where four old women chatted and used their knives to extremely good effect on some fat flat fish. They quieted when they spotted his approach.
“You found a nice one,” said Ferred, snorting as he laid it flat on an unoccupied skin.
Taking their due, the butchers slit the belly open. Ferred extracted the liver, slicing it thin so the four matrons could each scarf down a share now and a share later. The others started divesting the carcass of skin, then organs came out into piles and the meat began coming off the bone. Ferred took up work at the neck as she happily gulped her treat. In little enough time, she convinced the creature’s spine to give up its bones. They’d make for good arrowheads, and weights for fishing line, and a host of minor things which required fragments of strong and light material.
Barnarr huffed, his face divided a bit as he left the crones to their work. He’d helped prove his worthiness to the community again.
He had to keep doing so for them to stay alive.
“Barnarr,” a voice called. It was not a kind voice, and it was not a mean voice.
The hefty profile of Ardnap stood on the edge of the camp, near the trees on the far not-sunfocus side. His flesh didn’t have many scars, and he didn’t carry any great and terrible weapon. It was more the posture he held - perfectly suited to speaking before a crowd, or sprinting away from danger, or lunging at a foe’s bare neck.
“We need to speak,” he said.
Barnarr sighed, then began trudging after Ardnap as he slipped away. On the way, he paused before the tribe’s large looking glass. Its protective fabric coating had been peeled back and pinned up, letting him see himself before the wide basin. He took a moment to clean his hands and arms, then considered himself.
His yellow snout had no spots of dirt on its end, though he wouldn’t have been able to smell it if it had. Blood was a strong, strong scent. Turning his head to the sides, he lifted either ear to check for mites and parasites, and any blood he might have initially missed. All was clean; his ears flopped back down. He licked the end of his nose. He checked his pelt and garments for any further blemishes that might interfere with his ability to smell, or evidence of injury. Nothing made itself obvious.
He wanted to be clean and calm when talking to the head of the tribe… especially after hearing what Ardnap’s call had said without words. He suspected he’d be out in the wilds again very shortly, and liked to be clean whenever he set out on a hike.
A quiet keening came from the back of his throat as he followed.
In a small glen where spiraling not-quite-flowering buds waved, he found Ardnap waiting with Grenfooner and Rurd. He was the weight of a boulder, she was the shape of a tree. Both hunters had earned their scars; Rurd during travels that went far afield and often brought news as worthwhile as the meat of any bull, Grenfooner in driving off or slaying things that went bump in the night between bringing in his better-than-average kills.
“You three have helped the Whiteshore folk remain as safe and secure as we are today,” Ardnap began.
Grenfooner gave a short grunt that went the length of his gigantic chest.
“Now, you must help us in a different way.”
The tribe’s head touched the spike in his ear. Unlike his kin, Ardnap had decoration not merely distinguishing his effects, but his person as well. In the days of his youth, he’d mustered his courage and delved into the remains of a coastal Destroyer settlement located not-sunfocus of the present day Whiteshore camp. He’d slipped and fallen in the confines of a nearly entirely buried structure, and the jagged point of a thin rigid post lanced him. The tip had missed taking his eye, leaving a thin but deep reminder of his misadventure down the side of his head. He’d nearly ended up ripping the ear in half to get free. Instead, a comrade had managed to sever the end through a combination of sawing and hammering. Ardnap had screamed, but he’d also kept the ear.
To this day, he tapped the deformed white material whenever he needed courage.
“We’ve had trouble getting enough food this season,” he told them, “but I don’t think you’ve got a full grasp of how bad it might be.”
He indicated Barnarr’s cleaned hands.
“There’s been less meat available, but it’s also been of lesser quality. Three weights of meat for every four we’d get most years.”
He looked pointedly at Rurd.
“You remember that Ker brought a trapjaw when you hunted together before full moon? No good. The bones were flimsy but usable, yet the flesh practically came off the thing without assistance. Smelled just a tiny bit odd, but they found maybe a single edible bite on the whole animal.”
“I don’t remember hearing that,” Grenfooner said.
“And you wouldn’t unless you were here tonight. The butchers kept their peace after they told me. I pulled Ker aside later. Poor man, he worked so hard to carry it. A meal for a feast, gone like mist.”
Barnarr’s face closed up. Life was demanding. A setback like that caused a pinching, crushing pain.
“I suppose you want us to find more food faster, is that it?” he asked. The question could have been flippant; he merely sounded resigned.
Curling up to sleep was so tempting just now.
Ardnap didn’t look happy as he gazed in the direction of the rest of the tribe.
“It can’t be hidden, but you’ll hear it first. The rest of the camp will hear soon enough, though. We won’t be eating roots anytime soon unless they’re from afield. The gourds won’t provide more than half what they normally yield, either.”
Rurd made a low cough. Grenfooner’s eyes narrowed.
“If the berries out by the marshland are adequate, and if the rest of the plots bring a harvest worth the name, then between that, and the spawn-season fish, and what game still lets itself be caught… we ought to survive the snows with careful planning. Even if not, I foresee us making it through the year. But we’re in danger. The trip sunfall will probably not avail us much, if the tribe’s richest grounds are flagging.”
Ardnap looked around.
“That’s why we need you. Travel sunfocus and sunfall by the sea, and see what you can find. I suspect we may need to expand our territory… or even pull stakes and leave. Especially watch for new hunting ranges and good soil. Go as far as you’re able, so that you may return before the full moon after the one upcoming.”
“Along the shore?” Rurd asked.
“If you can. Be careful of strange places, and watch for strange people.”
He cast his gaze around the troupe.
“You aren’t the only ones to be seeking, but I have high hopes for you. Strength and wisdom and resourcefulness and speed and hardiness. You are exemplars of all of these.”
They crept out from camp shortly after nightfall while sleep cradled those they called kin.
“Go far and go well,” Ardnap’s benediction rang behind them as they set out under the stars.