The half-grown hasérúr dashed through the threadbare forest, and Hanych followed, stumbling in the dim light of the storm-wracked sky. His breath was loud in his ears, the pain in his side nearly quieting the acid burn in his belly. Snow and old ash scattered at their passage, he and Daeych at his shoulder, the promise of food more than – yesterday’s? two days gone’s? – meager meal of scavenged argor tubers, half-rotted.
Howls rose from left and right. Bancrach. His fist clenched on the haft of the axe he carried, a priceless relic of the time before this endless winter. It is not yours!
The howls again, closer now on the left. The hasérúr jerked and turned aside, sending them stumbling up the remnant of an old pathway, stones breaking apart and sinking into the mud, sliding underfoot. Bones crunched too beneath his tread, and Hanych hissed Elmir’s curse upon the azg-darath, as quickly renounced. They had no more choice than any when the star fell, and if the stonefolk hadn’t learned to eat rock down Below, they’d be as starving as any by now, too.
A cliff loomed before them, rocks and earth spilt down its length over the old azg door; the hasérúr turned to scramble up the precarious slope. Daeych’s knife flew from behind him, skimmed past head, and struck stone. It started in alarm; a moment’s hesitation only, but enough for Hanych to sink his axe into its neck.
A moment of triumph only, for the howls now came again, closer, and Hanych beheld the bancrach for the first time; an older male, still half-man-height for all his ragged, hungry look, perched on a low cliff-ledge, and two smaller shapes hidden in the shadows of the path. Hanych turned at bay, gripping his axe – three bancrach and two el-daratha was a hard fight always, but all half-starved, long-ran, and desperate… but without food, would they even last the night?
They are as hungry as you, as kin-loyal as you.
If they had not turned the hasérúr, you’d have lost it at forest-edge.
And still they have not attacked us.
A favor for a favor; that is the law.
Hanych’s axe rose and fell, once, twice, severing two haunches from the dead hasérúr, and a last effort thrust the remaining meat toward the shapes in the darkness; stiffly, the old bancrach jumped down from his ledge and dragged it away to his pack.
Triumphant howls rang in the darkness. A moment later, Hanych and Daeych’s yells joined them.