* * *
Barrow brought her knife down on the insect, watching it squirm, as it’s circular symmetry was broken, but she wasn’t able to enjoy its writhing agony like she normally did. She was growing bored. She had already memorized the placement of all the internal organs of the circlebug, and this particular specimen was not very awe-inspiring.
Her mother opened the flap of their small dwelling and poked her head out. “Did you find any, Barrow?”
“Yes, mother. Coming, mother,” she said, picking up the dying insect and heading inside to the smell of cooking swordgrass. It was a horrible smell, but it made her mouth water anyway.
She handed the insect to her mother, who dropped it into the boiling soup, and commenced to stirring.
“Just one?” she said, sighing discontentedly.
“Yeah,” Barrow replied. “And we were lucky to get that. They’re getting harder to find.”
Barrow hated it when her mother complained. Complaining did not help their situation. Only going out and doing something about it did anything, and she had a few ideas in that regard.
“I’ve seen quite a few outside the walls,” she said. “Perhaps we could…”
“Absolutely not!” her mother yelled unexpectedly. “I forbid you to go up on the wall again! What if you fell and… and…”
Her mother choked back on the dreaded word, and pounded the insect into the bottom of the pan with a sickening crunch, before going back to her stirring. “Just don’t go back there again.”
“But if we don’t find some food soon…”
“I know, little one. I know. I will do something about it tomorrow. I promise.
Barrow knew her mother would not be able to do anything about their situation, but merely shrugged her shoulders. It was all up to her. It always was.
Her mother strained out the water from the pulverized mixture. It was a sickly green, clear liquid. Then she added clean water and started stirring again. Next, she strained out the green water again, then repeated the process twice more, until the swordgrass and circlebug mash was a pure white color, all the green poison removed from it. Finally, she shared out a large portion for her daughter, and a smaller portion for herself.
Barrow shoveled spoonful after spoonful into her mouth, and before she knew it, her bowl was empty. Her mother finished hers much more slowly, and Barrow found herself wondering what would happen if she were to take her mother’s share as well.
She decided against it. They both needed to keep up their strength, and while her share was not enough, it would keep her alive for another day or two, at least.
So she watched her mother finish eating her portion, every mouthful agony for her own underfed stomach.
When she was blessedly finished, she took her metal bowl and washed it in clean water along with her own. “Get some rest. I’m leaving for the night. I’ll be back in the morning,” she said, and then was out the door without another word.
Barrow went to her too-small nest of cast-off rags and other bits to sleep on, and curled up as best she could on the cold ground.
She once again wondered what it was her mother did every evening that made her so tired in the mornings that she slept most of the day away, only to wake up again shortly before mealtime. She always came back with a bundle of swordgrass leaves, though. Without her work, whatever it was, they would probably have starved to death months ago.
Times were surprisingly good, all considered. It was much better than it used to be. Barrow remembered a time just a few months ago when there had been no food to eat at all. They had already eaten all the edible bits from their bedding, and Mother had grown increasingly despondent.
One day, Mother woke up with a determined look on her face, and headed off into the city, leaving Barrow alone and hungry. When she came back that night, she was carrying a bundle of swordgrass leaves, which she cooked, but not thoroughly enough. They had been poisoned, and only the fact that they had not been able to eat very much of it had saved them from the worst effects of it.
From that point on, her mother would leave every night and come back with food. She learned to cook it safely, and from then on, things had been better.
Barrow rolled over and stared at the ceiling, waiting for the sun to fully set. She didn’t want to accidentally catch up to her mother, and it was easier to hide in the dark.
Once it was fully dark, she got up and snuck outside. There was nothing for it. She needed to get to the other side of the wall. Her stomach would not be denied.
Reaching the wall was easy. Getting up it in the dark, on the other hand…
Barrow grasped the cold metal block nearest her and felt for the seam with her thin fingers. She then pulled herself up just enough to grasp the next block with her fingertips, and hold onto the lower block with her toes. She repeated the painstakingly slow process.
The metal was excruciatingly cold, and bit into her extremities with a voracious appetite nearly equal to her own. She repeated the process several more times, growing fatigued faster than she thought possible. The wall was hard enough to climb in the daytime when it was so hot to the touch that it burned, but this… This was worse. The cold sapped her strength much quicker.
She finally reached the top and took a few moments to rest and get her bearings. The hardest part was over, for now.
Now she just had to get down to the field surrounding the city wall. Despite what her mother said, this was actually the easiest part. The wall was slightly slanted, and so all she had to do was slide down it.
Which she did, without a sound. Sometimes, the guards would patrol outside the gates, and she did not want to run into any of them. They would likely beat her and leave her to bleed to death in the dirt, or worse. Any sound could draw them to investigate.
Once Barrow hit the ground, she kept her head low and ran as best she could toward a small, distant little hill that would obscure her from any guards patrolling outside the walls. Luckily, there were clouds obscuring most of the stars, so she would be much harder to see this night.
Unfortunately, that also meant that it would be harder for her to see as well. She would have to use her other senses to hunt for the circlebugs that would fill her aching belly.
Once at the hill, she crouched down behind it and took some time to catch her breath. She looked around but could see nothing more than the vague impression of where the ground differentiated itself from the sky. She quieted her breathing and listened. She could hear the chirping of the circlebugs close by, and got down on all fours so as to better hunt them. They were startled by loud noises, but luckily could only shuffle away at a slow speed. They were almost completely helpless to predators except for one thing…
They could flip over at lightning speed, and use their legs to latch on to whatever was attacking them, then squeeze with a vise-like grip, tearing out chunks of flesh that they would then consume.
But Barrow knew how to keep them from doing that. Just simply use her knife to cut through a segment, turning the circlebug into a linebug, and then crush it while it was writhing in agony. Then it was safe to eat. The legs were actually the best-tasting part, in her opinion.
She shuffled forward, and caught a tiny glimpse of starlight reflecting off mirrored carapace, then struck quickly with her knife.
She was quite efficient. One stab down, and the creature was paralyzed by pain. She then ripped off the legs one by one and stuffed her mouth. She then put the remains of the bug into a small pocket in her shirt, and then searched for another, brandishing a tearing smile.
It wasn’t very hard. The creatures were everywhere. She stuffed her face again and again, until she started to become full. She knew better than to overeat, she didn’t want to vomit up all she had just consumed.
She would leave the rest of the bug parts for her mother. She liked to put them in the swordgrass mash every evening. With luck, she would never question where Barrow had gotten the sudden bounty of food.
Barrow filled her pockets with bug carcasses, and then began her stealthy way back home.