It was cold, and almost no light was coming through the layers of grass above. There was no sound.
The stoors had gone.
Shivering slightly, Oornu nudged Uurna. She grimaced and raised her head for a moment, but then she relaxed again. Oornu nudged her harder and whispered. “Wake up! It’s time!”
Uurna opened her eyes, blinking rapidly for a moment. “Water.”
Oornu shook his head. “We have nothing to drink. We left our supplies. We’ll have to go back for them.” He pointed. “We must start moving.”
She hugged herself. Her voice trembled. “I’m so tired, and cold. I need to…”
Oornu reached into the damp grass in front and started pulling it apart. It was easier than he expected, and soon he had made a reasonable tunnel. The exertion had warmed him. Uurna followed behind. “We can go up soon.” He said, continuing to part the compacted grass. “Once we get a few strides from the solids we’ll be safe.”
Uurna’s breathing was laboured. She was obviously still exhausted from their earlier ordeal. “I want to go home.”
“We will, just as soon as we recapture our…”
“No! Forget them!”
Oornu turned. He could barely see Uurna in the murk. “Without them we’ll be shamed! Their recapture will be easier in the night. They’ll be close, and sleeping. We can…”
Uurna shook her head. “There is no shame! We tried, just like the others tried. And we failed, just like the others failed. But we are alive! That is our achievement!”
“I feel shame!” Oornu said harshly. He felt tears beginning to well in his eyes. “I have claimed for more than ten seasons that I could do this. The elders supported me. The entire village supported me. How can I return without them?!”
Uurna touched his face. She spoke softly. “You will tell them our story, our glorious story, and then you will tell them you will try again one day.”
Oornu sighed. “But we were so close. We almost…”
“Yes. We almost did it! And if we go home now we will be alive to tell the elders and the villagers that we almost did it! We will be the first to do so. Our story will be told and retold!”
“Our story will certainly be told.”
“Yes. And young ones will gather at our home in awe of us!”
Oornu nodded slowly. “Well, we still have to get home first.” He looked up. A twinkle of light shone through the dense carpet of fronds above. “I think we have come far enough.” He reached up and carefully parted the grass, and then pulled himself up until his head was just above ground level. He looked around. The tall grass now looked dark blue under the star-filled night sky. The fronds swayed gently, rustling in the almost imperceptible breeze. He looked straight up briefly and squinted at the bright eye; the star with the huge wispy tail that had lit up the recent summer nights, and then he clambered up. Turning, he reached down and helped Uurna. She groaned as she struggled out of the damp ground. She sat for a moment, shivering. It was even colder on the surface.
Oornu coughed, and then felt faint. He looked to where the solids of the stoors lay. The slimy lumps of defecation were still steaming despite being out in the cold air for hours.
The steam was drifting in their direction.
Uurna whimpered and then vomited. Blood sprayed out in front of her. Oornu retched. “Quickly!” He gasped, pulling Uurna to her feet.
Staggering, Oornu dragged his mate away from the solids and back towards where they had left their supplies, the light of the bright eye making it relatively easy for him to find his way. “We need to drink and eat. We need strength.”
Uurna nodded, and then coughed up more blood. “I think we’re close now.”
Oornu nodded. “We are. I can see the shelter I made for them. And I see our supplies!”
On reaching the grass shelter Oornu helped Uurna sit down, and then he rummaged through his belt and bags. He handed Uurna her water pouch. She gulped it back and gasped. He grabbed his own and took in several mouthfuls. He sighed, and then pulled some dried meat from his bag. “Eat this.” He said, handing some to Uurna. “When you’ve finished we’ll...”
A guttural roar banished the calm of the night. A spray of warm and rancid saliva showered Oornu and Uurna. Immediately they vomited the water they had just drank, spraying it over each. They turned to see the two stoors standing just a couple of strides away. They were a repugnant sight, with their outer skins and fat layers now completely shed, and their ribs and sharp vertebrae exposed. Vast lungs within the ribcages of the creatures slowly filled and emptied with increasing noise. Puss dripped from their exposed organs.
Uurna whispered, her voice trembling. “What can we do? I’m tired. I cannot run!”
Oornu fought his own fatigue. The thickening stench threatened to heave his guts once more. And his increasing sense of dread did not help. He knew just how deadly a skin-shed stoor could be. And he was confronted by two of them. There was little chance of escape if they ran. And they could not fight. He knew of only one solution. He turned to Uurna. “We must get inside them.”
Uurna looked at him for a moment, and then bowed her head. She shook it slowly. “I can’t.”
“You have to!” Oornu said. He looked back at the two stoors. He could see their exposed jaw bones chomping and their jagged teeth crunching together. One of them snorted, scattering steaming snot through the perforated ridges of its nose bone.
Uurna looked up. She spoke weakly. “Please. Not on my own.”
Oornu frowned, annoyed, and then thought for a moment. “I expect we could both fit into one. We’ll do that.”
Uurna nodded. “Yes.”
The stoor stepped forwards and roared. Another spray of nauseating saliva showered them. Wretching, Oornu pulled Uurna to her feet and grabbed his belt and bags. “There’s no more time. We must do it now!”
“I don’t know if...”
Oornu ignored her. “We’ll enter at the front of the ribs where there is no muscle.” He pulled Uurna towards the nearest stoor. Momentarily startled, the creature raised its head, revealing the thick muscles and tendons of its neck and throat. Its clavicle bones parted slightly revealing a small gap. Oornu pointed. “There!” Forcing Uurna forwards he pushed her head-first into the gap. The stoor groaned as he pushed her struggling body further in. Once her feet had disappeared he grabbed hold of the creature’s top rib threw in his belt and bags, and then pulled himself up. He managed to hook his right leg over the rib just as the stoor began to run. As he felt a hand pulling on his waist the increasingly violent motion of the creature pushed him up, slamming the back of his head into something hard.