The rule was to keep running – Don’t stop, don’t die. The Tribe needed its strongest to survive. So Stopmouth fled for his life through the streets of Hairbeast territory, while its non-human inhabitants looked on with indifference. Already the cries of his brother were fading behind him.
The Armourbacks preferred living prey. When they caught Wallbreaker, they’d drive him home with spears to feed their young. The screams of such captives lasted for days, echoing down streets and over rooftops.
Stopmouth tried not to think about it. ‘K-keep running,’ he told himself. He leaped barrels of flesh and sprinted into an alley narrow enough to give the pursuers some trouble if they were still on his tail.
Stopmouth realized he couldn’t hear his brother any more. He skidded to a halt. The hot air of mid-afternoon stank of blood and rang with the booming howls of fighting or mating Hairbeasts. He could feel his heart battering against his ribs and he leaned his tall frame for support against a crumbling wall. Don’t stop. Don’t think. Keep running. He wiped his stinging eyes and whispered the name, ‘Wallbreaker.’ Humanity might survive without his brother, but Stopmouth knew he could not. Wallbreaker had always been the darling of the Tribe. He’d been a sweet child, grown up to be a great hunter, and people would forgive him anything, even a half-idiot brother. And they had forgiven always, smiling indulgently through the younger boy’s stammers in order to please his handsome sibling.
And yet, if Wallbreaker failed to make it back, Mossheart would have to marry somebody else and that would mean . . . Stopmouth pushed the thought away with a shiver of self-disgust. He forced himself to turn round. He tried to spot his brother, but crowds of burly Hairbeasts blocked his way. The creatures filled the market place with the sharp stink of their fur. They bartered for flesh in high gabbling voices and sometimes the larger males would push against each other, chest to chest, until one gave way.
He shoved sweaty brown hair out of his eyes and marched back the way he’d come. The councillors would be angry if they knew what he was doing. ‘Suicide!’ they’d cry. ‘Waste!’ He didn’t even have a spear to defend himself, having abandoned it in his flight.
He reached the last place he’d heard his brother’s voice: an alley flanked by tall buildings where light from the great Roof struggled to penetrate. He found some traces of blood here, but they were old. Stopmouth tiptoed to the far end, his muscles trembling with exhaustion, his body and loincloth dripping with sweat. Here at last he heard the tones of human speech: a whimpering, pleading voice so unlike that of the great hunter Wallbreaker was becoming.
This can’t be my brother, Stopmouth thought.
The alley opened onto a small square, where incomprehensible murals covered the walls with swirls of dried blood. A few Hairbeasts watched curiously as Wallbreaker, his fair hair streaked with filth, retreated before the spears of the Armourbacks. He made no effort to take one of his attackers into death with him. Instead, tears flowed freely down his handsome face, shaming him and his family.
Even as his heart swelled with pity, Stopmouth began having second thoughts about a rescue. How could two humans hope to defeat five Armourbacks? The adults reached chest height on a man, but they were broader, and a rock-hard shell made them tough to kill.
Stopmouth gritted his teeth. He wasn’t ready to die, but he refused to let these beasts keep his brother. And he still had time – they preferred live prisoners to quick kills.
He swallowed his fear and jogged back to the mouth of the alley. Then he took a quiet lane running parallel to the one the Armourbacks would probably follow to their territory. He’d need to find a place where he could come out ahead of them. And a plan – he’d need one of those too. He’d have to think one up as he ran.
He passed open doorways where lonely Hairbeast females boomed with song. He leaped old drains and clattered over wider stretches of water on metal bridges. All around him the ancient buildings of the city echoed his footfalls or muffled them in carpets of ragged moss.
Far enough, he thought.
A shaky tower stood nearby with a grey-furred Hairbeast snoozing in its doorway. The creatures were larger than humans and he clipped this one slightly as he jumped over it. He pounded up the stairs, ignoring its bellows. He had no idea what it was saying. All he knew was that the creature was unlikely to break treaty to hunt him.
Three floors later he reached the roof. The surface creaked underfoot and cracks snaked all over it. The whole building looked ready to collapse. Maybe that was a good thing – he might be able to turn the bricks and loose lumps of concrete to his advantage.
Stopmouth walked over the rattling roof to the waist-high wall that bordered it and looked down. Almost immediately he saw his brother’s blond head. The Armourbacks pushed him in front of them with jabs of their spears. Humans would have surrounded their prey, but Armourbacks preferred to drive theirs. Perhaps they feared to leave a desperate enemy within striking distance of their backs.
As the pack moved up the street towards his position, Stopmouth carefully pried rocks away from the wall of the tower. He heaved and strained until a few of the larger ones were balanced on the edge. He wiped sweat from his eyes and tried to ignore the thumping of his heart, which had started up again at the sight of the enemy.
‘Come on! Come on!’ he whispered. He rarely stuttered when talking to himself.
Wallbreaker passed beneath him. Stopmouth held his breath, waiting for the first Armourback. The moments stretched, measured in beads of sweat and a frantic hammering in his ribcage.
Suddenly a flash of light blazed in the sky above him. Heartbeats later a boom followed that shook Stopmouth’s tower and rattled the roof beneath his feet.
The Armourbacks lowered their spears and stared up in what might have been astonishment. But they weren’t watching Stopmouth – their eyes, and even the eyes of their prisoner, were fixed on the great Roof above. Stopmouth didn’t dare follow their gaze. Whatever was happening up there, he wouldn’t let it cost him his brother.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Inferior by Peadar O. Guilin. Copyright © 2008 by Peadar O. Guilin. Excerpted by permission of David Fickling Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.