Winters of Starvation

J.L. Weinmeister

We continue hiking south through the forest. The trees start to thin before dwindling into nothingness. Soft needle- and leaf-strewn earth becomes dry and dusty dirt. As we leave the cover of the trees, our shoes sink into fine sand. We’ve reached the Sorenis Desert.

It’s a cold desert, so heat stroke isn’t our primary concern. In fact, we all don warmer clothing before crossing.

Other than some scattered bushes and clumps of grass, we see nothing but sand. I tell you stories as we trudge onward to help boost morale. I promise that in the afternoon our travels will look very different.

We stop to eat our midday meal, which consists of meager leftovers from last night. Many of you are still hungry when we resume. Don’t worry. We’ll be leaving the wilderness soon. Tonight you’ll have a warm bed again.

In the early afternoon, you hear something. For the past several hours, the only sound has been our group trudging through the sand. But now you hear a rushing sound. There’s no wind, so you know it’s not that. You think it might be something else, but that can’t be possible. Not here, in the middle of the desert.

But you’re right. Up ahead you see a blue line. A moving blue line. It’s a river. To the north are frothing cataracts, which are the source of the rushing sound. You all rejoice at the sight of water.

But it gets even better. There are a couple of rafts sitting near the bank. I had them built and brought here in anticipation of our visit. It will make the second half of today’s journey much speedier.

You happily board a raft with a few other people, and we float downriver. While the northern part of the river is full of rocks from the mountains—and therefore rapids—this part of the river is smooth. The water is cold, occasionally spraying onto the raft and your exposed skin, but most of you find it preferable to the sand.

Rafting is all fun and games until the sun reaches the horizon. We’re not yet at our destination, so we’ll have to continue despite not being able to see as well. About an hour after sunset, we approach Dinavi. There are shapes to the west of the river, some of which have glowing lights coming from them.

We guide the rafts to the riverbank and drag them ashore. Lucky for us the innkeeper is still awake, and there’s plenty of warm food to go around. While you eat, I tell you a story you’ve been waiting to hear since the night of the fire.

* * * * *

Winter always came early and stayed late in the town of Dukara. While it was farther south than any other mellowmiran settlement, it was still in the northern reaches of the continent. Most mellowmira hunkered down in their stone houses, keeping fires roaring in the hearths all day and all night. The men only left the comfort of their homes to go to work or to the tavern for some much-needed alcohol. The women only left to get supplies and run any other important errands. The children only left for school.

But Henri wasn’t most mellowmira. He was a hunter, so it was his job to go out in between storms and find food for his family and his neighbors. He wasn’t the only hunter—what kind of town relied on one person for all of their winter food?—but his success was critical to everyone’s survival.

While it was technically mid-autumn, the snow was already a foot deep in the mountains. Henri had stopped hunting there weeks ago, preferring to stick to the slightly less snowy forest. He had been scouring the woods for prey for several days now, and so far all he’d encountered were a few rodents and birds.

His food stores were almost depleted, and his bones were saturated with cold from being out in the elements so much, but he couldn’t go home empty-handed. He had to find something even if it was just a yibunit or a rilbeg. What he really wanted was a redoi.

Redoi were the only large herbivore that dwelled in this area. Taking on a carnivore was challenging and dangerous. Henri saw fewer predators than he did redoi, and redoi were scarce. They didn’t used to be, but each year Henri saw fewer and fewer. He hadn’t seen any at all in nearly two months.

Something skittered into the underbrush to Henri’s right, and he crept closer to investigate. The creature spooked and disappeared into its burrow. It was a terham, a rodent about the size of Henri’s foot. It had six legs and a long tail. The only thing they were good for was soup, and even then, they didn’t taste very good. Rooskwi made much better soup than terham. But rooskwi were a little harder to trap, being arboreal. Sometimes he could hit one with an arrow, but it took a lot of skill and luck.

The next day Henri began the journey home, stopping to check his snares along the way. The first one was empty, but the second had a yibunit in it. The large rodent was better than nothing. Henri didn’t expect to find anything else in his snares. He was usually lucky to catch one animal, let alone more. But today was different. He had another yibunit and a small rilbeg. The three rodents would at least provide some food for his family and village.

* * * * *

The other hunters from Dukara were struggling just as much to find game. Three of them came back empty handed. One brought back two large birds called nasies. Another brought half a dozen fialos, which were smaller birds with four legs. A few of the hunters specialized in fishing, and they brought back as much fish as they could carry. Only one other brought rodents. None had seen any redoi, and only one saw a predator.

One of the merchants had to make a trip south to Rocco to trade with the elvira to supplement the food supply.

Henri went home to his wife and three kids.

“Please tell me you caught something,” his wife said.

“Two yibunits and a rilbeg,” he said.

“That’s it?”

“That’s all I could find.”

“We’ve been living off flour and water for the past two days.”

“Why didn’t you go into town and buy more food?”

“There was no food. The elvira are still processing their harvests, so they haven’t begun trading vegetables yet.”

Henri wiped a hand across his face. There never seemed to be enough food during the winter, and each year the shortages got steadily worse. The mellowmira wanted to hunt farther south where game was more plentiful, but most hunters were killed by elvira. The elvira didn’t like when mellowmira travelled south of the border, and they weren’t afraid to punish those who did.

* * * * *

Six weeks later, Henri was trudging through deep snow, searching for any sign of life. Hunting had been difficult all winter, and it wasn’t getting any easier. No one had seen any redois. Yibunits and nasies were the largest prey out there. The past two weeks, all Henri had seen were terhams, and even those were hard to find. This time he saw nothing.

For the first time in his life, Henri returned to Dukara empty-handed. And to his dismay, his home was shrouded in dark red, the symbol of death.

Henri lifted a hand to open his door, but he hesitated. What would he find on the other side? Who had died? He stepped inside and found his wife sitting by the fire, her eyes red. Since she was alive, that meant one of his children wasn’t.

“Maretta?” he asked. “What happened?”

She shook her head and looked into the fire. “My milk dried up, and there was nothing to feed Cavren. I failed you.”

Henri sat down. Cavren was dead at five months old.

Henri wasn’t the only one who was hit by the wave of starvation that winter. Many of the older mellowmira ran out of food. A few other children died too. Henri still couldn’t find any game in the forests to the north. The starvation had to end, and he would do whatever it took to make that happen.

* * * * *

Rather than go north, Henri travelled south to elvirian territory, though he was careful to avoid their settlements. The elvira didn’t like it when mellowmira crossed the border, but Henri didn’t care. As long as he was careful, he would be able to find his family much-needed food to get them through what remained of the winter.

It didn’t take Henri long to track a herd of gilpuz. They were medium-sized animals with pinkish-colored skin. One of them would make a meal for everyone in the village.

Henri killed a gilpus and brought it back to Dukara. While everyone was happy to have more food, they all knew what lengths he had gone to to secure the gilpus.

Henri continued travelling south, hunting gilpuz and lenkids. While the medium-sized game was nice, he kept eyeing the larger animals. They were just as big as or bigger than redoi, and there were five different species of them too. Some were leaner than others. Henri didn’t think he could carry one back to Dukara by himself, though. Not in one trip. He couldn’t draw attention to himself by leaving part of an animal behind.

On his next hunting trip, he convinced one of his fellow hunters to accompany him in the hopes of acquiring a larger animal. They tracked a kwosun herd for two days before finally catching up with it. Kwosun were huge beasts with long, shaggy fur, six legs, and intimidating horns.

Henri killed one, and he and his companion set to work butchering it. They were about halfway done when they heard a noise. A small group of elvira were approaching them. They bore their finely crafted bows, so Henri assumed they were also hunting the kwosun.

Henri and his companion lay down in the grass and engaged their camouflage abilities, hoping the elvira wouldn’t see them, but it was impossible to hide the kwosun they killed.

The elvira approached the corpse. “What is this?” one of them asked.

“Who would abandon a kwosun partway through the butchering process?” another asked.

They scanned the surrounding area.

“This stinks of mellowmira,” the first one said. “Find them.”

Henri and his companion knew there was no hope for them unless they tried to fight their way out of it. Using the element of surprise, they jumped up and nocked their arrows, ready to fire them at their opponents.

But the elvira were faster. Henri and his companion were killed for trespassing, and the elvira took the meat from the kwosun to their own town.

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