They were close. He could smell them. The sweet sickly aroma of their decaying skins was uncomfortably familiar.
Slowly, silently, Oornu peered out over the lichen-covered edge of the outcrop. He saw them, at least six, dimly lit in the pale light of dawn, foraging amongst the spiky shrubs at the base of the narrow crevasse. They were snorting and hissing as they worked.
Oornu was surprised. To see more than two stoors together was rare. To see six was almost unheard of. And then he felt uneasy. The capture would be much more difficult, even deadly. But he had no choice but to try.
Uurna appeared next to him. She was always the last to awaken. She looked down and whispered. “So many!”
Oornu nodded solemnly. He continued staring down at the shuffling creatures.
Uurna looked and him and then nudged him with her elbow. “Be happy! This is what we wanted!”
Annoyed, Oornu glared at his mate. “But there are too many. The concentration of their odour will be dangerous!”
Uurna frowned and then looked down again. Her eyes widened. She pointed.
Oornu looked. More stoors had appeared out of the darkness at the far side of the crevasse. They joined the others, grunting loudly to announce their arrival. The stench of their hides was growing stronger. He grimaced. “There’s not much time.” He whispered. “We must act now.”
“But you said there are too many. Perhaps we should wait until…”
Oornu shook his head. “The sun is about to appear. When its light touches them their excretions will double.” He pointed north. “We need to get through the grassy plain before mid-morn. If we wait we will succumb for certain.”
Uurna nodded. “Fine, then let’s prepare.” She turned and reached for the two oiled and finely stitched pig skins behind her. She handed one to Oornu. They both started to blow into a small wooden nozzle to one edge. The pig skins began to inflate and soon formed fat cushion shapes. Oornu and Uurna pushed paste into the pigskin’s nozzle and then tied on the cap. They then began smearing the paste generously across their bare legs and arms.
Uurna grimaced as the warmth of her body helped release the pungent odour of the paste. “I hope this helps.”
“It will.” Oornu said, checking to make sure he was as fully covered as possible. He looked at his mate. “You need more on your inner legs. They’ll have the most contact.”
Uurna looked down and nodded. She grabbed another handful of paste and began to spread it.
The first rays of the sun sparkled through the tree line on the horizon beyond the grassy plain. And to the distant north the rising plane of rock that led to the bone pit was brightening with shades of amber. Oornu peered down into the crevasse. There were now at least ten stoors, and they had almost devoured all the shrubs. They were nuzzling each other and snorting louder than ever, much more agitated than before. “We must go now.” He picked up his food and water pouches and strapped them to his waistband, and then grabbed his inflated pig skin. He got to his feet and faced the crevasse.
Uurna picked up her pig skin and then took her place next to him. They stood together at the very edge of the outcrop. They breathed slowly and deeply, ignoring the stink of their paste-smeared bodies and the creatures below, calming their nerves, preparing, and focusing on the task ahead of them.
Oornu felt a warm sense of serenity pass over him. He turned to look at Uurna. The rising sun was bright on her face, her smooth soft skin glowing in its orange light as she looked down into the crevasse. She turned and looked at him. His sense of serenity deepened.
Spreading their legs apart, they placed their inflated pig skins between their thighs and then gripped the skins tightly. They held hands and looked down. Some of the stoors had wandered back into the darkness, but most remained at what was left of the shrubs. Their snorting was softer.
Oornu spoke softly. “Have you identified yours?”
Uurna nodded. “The middle one. The one with the scar on its back. It’s been toughened and will be worth more.”
“Good. I have chosen the one to its right. The one with the youngling at its teat.”
“That could cause problems.”
“I am ready for that.”
Oornu and Uurna shuffled apart slightly.
And then, still holding hands, they jumped.
Their fall was broken with a loud rasping sound as their deflating pig skins cushioned their impacts onto the backs of their chosen stoors.
As the creature beneath him shrieked Oornu reached forwards and grabbed its neck. Decayed skin squelched through his fingers. The tang of the rancid flesh was almost overwhelming. Oornu’s eyes watered, forcing him to blink rapidly. His stomach turned. The creature lurched forwards. Despite his nausea he laughed out loud at his apparent success. He turned to look back. He could see Uurna struggling on the back of her stoor as it jerked around trying to throw her off its decaying back. It seemed stronger than his, but despite that she was managing to hold on. The other stoors had already fled into the darkness. Their shrieks of terror echoed across the crevasse. Even the youngling had gone, which was strange. They usually fought to defend their mother.
Oornu started to feel faint. His stomach retched. He leaned forwards and vomited hard onto the back of his stoor’s wide putrid head. He turned to see Uurna doing the same. “We must get moving.” He shouted, spitting out more vomit. His voice was becoming hoarse and his vision was blurring.
Uurna nodded and pulled on the torn oozing skin of her stoor. It lumbered forwards. “Then let’s go.” She said, almost throwing up once more.
Oornu yanked on the neck flesh of his stoor, tearing some of it away. As the odour of decay thickened he dug his heels in hard. The creature moaned and turned and then headed out of the crevasse. Beyond, the plain of tall grass was now bathed in low sunlight. He pointed and shouted. “The grass will shield us for a while, but we must cross before the sun is too high.”
Uurna caught up and drew her stoor alongside Oornu’s. They headed into the grass.