Daryal pass. Moonlight Night (painting by Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1890-1895
Recommended for ages 13 and up for violence.
If you want to read chapter 1.
Myvern had spent most of his afternoon at the Dry Root Canyons, engaged in his favorite activity of bird and mammal watching. He didn’t much care for hunting, even though it was a Vun tradition. Rather he preferred to eat plants over animals, which made him weak and inept in the eyes of the other Vun.
Not that he cared. He had been told that he was weak enough times that he had learned to ignore what everyone else thought. He had been a disappointment to his parents and everyone else in the tribe for as long as he could remember. His punishment for being inadequate was to be ostracized. But it didn’t matter. It just gave him more time to commune out in nature, and it was the perfect time to do so, as autumn was approaching, driving way the summer heat.
Thus far, his eyes had picked out two golden tulun birds nesting together in a crevice about fifty feet down, their plumage coruscating like the sun. Further down in the basin was a zewt, a small rodent only the size of the thumb, nibbling upon the fruit of a kyaka bush. Myvern, as well as the other Vun, could adjust their eyes accordingly to see something close up or in the distance. It was just as well, because the Vun were deaf. Such eyes were needed to see a raiding party of Xibians coming from miles away.
But the Xibians weren’t the only threats. There were also the Korrigans to contend with, a race of bat-like creatures. Though these winged creatures didn’t possess sight nearly as excellent as the Vuns, or hearing as nearly as sharp as the Xibians, they still had both senses, as well as wings, which made them a force to contend with. Just to be safe, Myvern looked up into the skies. He saw a black shape high above. Adjusting his eyes, he focused on it. Thank goodness, it was only a bird. But one never knew. That’s why he was vigilant at all times.
Still, such vigilance didn’t rob Myvern out of the joys of life, even if finding those joys were in solitude away from the tribe. He had learned long ago to be content with his life as it was, not at what it couldn’t be. He could never hope to please the society he was born into, no matter how much he tried. He was too weak and too clumsy. He had never been able to learn how to effectively master the spear or the bow and arrow. And if even somehow, against all impossible odds, he could gain greater flexibility and prowess in hunting and fighting, what a tragedy it would be to die as someone else. Even if the rewards reaped acceptance, he would still not sacrifice himself on that altar for the high price that would come with it. He wasn’t a warrior. He was an artist. Sometimes he would take out a shagrit skin stretched across a wooden block to use it as a canvas to sketch on. There were plenty of dyes he could get from the flowers. Even some of the soil around the canyon provided a good charcoal like substance for drawing. Overall, Myvern couldn’t complain, even though he was lonely.
As his eyes looked down upon the canyon, he saw at sixty feet away, nestled between two large boulders, something small struggling. It was a root mouse, and somehow or other it had gotten caught between the rocks.
Myvern wasted no time in scanning the canyon walls near him to find the best way down. Catching his gaze was a wall with small notches for gripping. He wasted no time scaling down that part of the cliff side. Thankfully, the wall of the canyon nearby him wasn’t fifty to eighty feet, but only twenty. Still, one wrong slip could mean injury or death.
Out of all of Myvern’s strengths, caution was his greatest strength. Nonetheless if he did fall, and in the process sent himself to the underworld, it wouldn’t be that huge of a loss. His parents certainly wouldn’t miss him. Besides, who was he to say that his life was worth more than the root mouse caught between the rocks? Negative thinking aside, he made it down the canyon, intact. His footing had lost hold a couple of times, causing him to get a few scratches and bruises, but nothing he couldn’t recuperate from.
With no time to lose, he rushed over to the little mouse that was trapped tightly between the boulders. Myvern was at a loss about how the mouse could get stuck between them. Regardless, it broke his heart to see the look of terror upon the little rodent’s face. He had to free it, but how? He couldn’t pull the mouse out, lest he decapitate it from the abdomen. He could try to run his fingers in the crevice, to see if he could gently dislodge the mouse’s feet, but his fingers wouldn’t fit.
Myvern looked at the stones beneath his feet, hoping to find something that could chisel through the rock. As if in answer to an unspoken prayer, something glittery nearby, like petrified starlight, pierced his pupils. It was a pair of white crystals that had washed in from a flood. Firm, the crystals had the potential to chisel a rock, but doing it by hand would take hours. There had to be something he could use for a hammer. Then out of the corner of his eyes he saw a nearly perfectly shaped oval stone. Handling it, he found that it had a good grip. The stone, along with one of the stronger crystals, would work nicely. He would have to work fast, seeing as the sun was setting. Granted, he could see well in the dark, but that didn’t stop the other creatures from coming out. This complicated a situation that required working with precision, as hammering away too fast could mean ending up stabbing the mouse with the crystal or smashing him with the rock.
Carefully, but at a steady pace, Myvern chiseled away. The boulders were harder than he’d anticipated. At first he was only able to scratch them, but gradually small chips fell away. Occasionally he was able to take a small chunk out, but the process as a whole was time consuming. It wasn’t so much the chiseling that was the hard part. It was seeing the fear in the root mouse’s eyes. He could even see each little individual hair quiver due to the mouse’s shaking body. Myvern tried not to notice, but it was hard when he had to partly watch where both his hammer was going and where his crystal was aligned. He breathed in deeply, telling himself not to stress. Just because the root mouse was anxious didn’t mean that he needed to be. He was in control. He could do this.
Or so he thought.
A predator crouching in a crevice had other ideas. Though the crevice was almost pitch black because of the setting sun, Myvern’s eyes could still differentiate the black figure against the shadows. It was a sqylin, a type of small weasel, but very fast, very agile, with sharp fangs that could inject toxins into the blood to render temporary paralysis or death. While Vun weren’t a part of their diet, the sqylin would certainly fight him for the creature. Every fiber in Myvern’s body told him to leave the mouse to the predator, but he hesitated. Could he in good conscious say that his life was more important than a lower life form? Besides, who would really miss him back at the tribe? For all he knew, the root mouse may very well have family that would miss him. Very well, Myvern would stand his ground.
Myvern watched closely as the sqylin slunk out from the shadows. Back arched, feet stretched forward, the sqylin was ready to pounce on the mouse. But then it looked at Myvern, giving him a look that clearly told him to let him have his meal. As if to answer the challenge, Myvern withdrew a blade he had sheathed in his tunic. He hated the thought of killing. And then it came to him, he couldn’t stand his ground. He couldn’t save the root mouse. If he were to slay the sqylin, would he not be a hypocrite for valuing the life of the mouse over that of the predator, which mattered just as much as that of the prey? What if the sqylin needed to capture the mouse for its cubs? Myvern couldn’t deprive the right for the weasel or its’ young to eat.
Slowly, he backed away from the sqylin until he was a sufficient distance. The predator turned his sights back to the root mouse. Unable to bear looking at the panic stricken eyes of the little mouse, Myvern turned his back to the helpless plight. Nature had to take its course.
Still, he couldn’t help but feel awful about the no-win situation. It was best not think about it. He had other problems.
It was nearly nightfall. Larger predators would be finding ample places to hide amongst the shadows of the canyons. Even with his exceptional eyesight he would have to be extra diligent. Cautiously, he kept looking from his left to his right, turning around here and there, scanning each and every nook of the canyon walls, looking forward and upward in case some creature was getting ready to pounce. So far the canyons proved to be calm. He prayed that they’d stay that way until he was safe back home.
He made his way back to where he had climbed down and breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that he was almost free of the canyon’s confines. He put his hands and feet into the bottom notches, gradually making his way up. He was finding that it was easier to climb out of the canyon than into it. That was until his eyes caught something slithering in the darkness of one of the crevices he was about to put his hand through.
The shape of the scales indicated that a noose viper had made its home in the crevice. Myvern shuddered, but retained his grip. He hated snakes, particularly the noose being one of the most dangerous. Its venom was acidic enough to corrode flesh, plant, and stone alike. To make it more lethal, the serpent could shoot a stream of venom from its mouth up to a distance of fifty feet. Myvern still had vivid memories, from when he was a child, in which an accident occurred with some Vun out hunting. The hunters had come back with burns. Some of the burns were worse than others, with their skin rotting away and blood gushing out. The witch doctor had not been able to save everyone, no matter how many prayers he had had offered to the god parents, or whatever herbs and medicine he had administered. Not even the copious amounts of bandages he had wrapped over the corroding skin could help. Out of the six hunters, three had died that day, two had become seriously disabled, and only one had fully recovered. Since then, Myvern had harbored a special fear towards this class of serpents, often wondering if they weren’t created by the godly parents, but by devils. And now that he was staring at a noose snake, his generally gentle disposition was waning as he contemplated yanking the beast out and snapping its neck. He could easily do so. The serpent’s head was turned away from him. Also he knew where and how to grab it.
But despite his disdain, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the snake. Whether his decision was made out of his supposed benevolence for all creatures, or, in this case, out of cowardice, he couldn’t say. Maybe it didn’t matter. What mattered was finding another way out. He wasn’t very far up, so he thought of just letting go. He looked down to make sure there weren’t any deadly critters below him. Knowing his luck, there’d be another noose snake waiting for him down below. But the way was clear. He dropped down, and began to scan the cliff sides for another potential way out.
By now night had completely covered the landscape, so Myvern kept his eyes wide open for fear of becoming prey. He cursed his altruism for trying to save the mouse. It only put him in a precarious situation in which he was walking near the point of a knife. Briefly, he spun around to see if a pack of ulyixs hadn’t surrounded him. They liked to hunt at night. He peered down the long corridor, both behind and in front of him, but there weren’t any ulixys to be found. Still, the canyons branched into many different corridors, and he could easily get lost in them.
He was about to give up when his eyes caught something sparkling in a corridor to the left of him. It was a puddle of water illuminated by starlight. The source of the puddle came from a small crack steadily dripping out water. By it towered a tree. It was an old grandfather tree who had lived for hundreds of years in this location. It was tall, reaching its woody arms out over the canyon. This was a stroke of luck. He only had to make sure that the tree was free from predators, something he had forgotten to do before climbing up the cliff side. His retinas took in every portion of the tree, analyzing every branch and each little leaf in the greatest of detail.
Finding the tree to be safe, Myvern began his ascent. Some of the limbs were fragile, so he’d have to be careful, and not just for his sake, but for the sake of the tree. Trees held a special place in the hearts of the Vun, symbolizing growth, abundance, necessities, and power. They were reminders of the eternal trees that had once dotted the earth when it was a paradise without death; a time before the Xibians had poisoned the gardens, thus incurring the wrath of the gods.
Eventually, Myvern reached the top of the tree, happy to see that he hadn’t desecrated it at all. From a branch closest to the surface, he jumped onto solid ground. On his knees he turned towards the tree and gave it a prayer of thanks, asking the gods to preserve it for many more years to come. He was now on one of the plateaus of the Dry Root Canyons, but he wasn’t concerned about being stuck. Many plateaus had rock bridges or were within jumping distance. The moon wasn’t out, but the numerous stars provided enough light. It was no hard task that he found his way back to the start of the canyon, and from there he was able to make his way back to the tribe, albeit rather reluctantly. He could only hope that many of them were fast asleep, so he wouldn’t have to deal with their bullying.
Adjusting his eyes, he saw the fires of oil lanterns and fire pits within stone houses, from far away. While both the Xibians and the Vun were gifted with fire from the gods, only the Vun had been given the gift of masonry. They were the ones blessed to live in stone dwellings, whereas the Xibians, due to being blind to the Vuns suffering ages ago, were consigned to live in the tents made out of the hides of dead animals.
Myvern felt sorry for the good Xibians having to share a curse with the rest. By a good Xibian, he meant the ones who were smart enough to acknowledge the wrongs that they had committed against the Vun. It wasn’t their fault that they had been born into a backwards society.
This wasn’t to say that the Vun were perfect. Their ancestors may have been in the right, but the current generation of Vun were too obsessed with war. And because Myvern wasn’t, he faced the punishment of either being ostracized or ridiculed. Out of the two, he preferred being ostracized. At least then they left him alone. When they ridiculed him, they were merciless. Occasionally they would throw sharpened sticks at him, not sharp or large enough to kill, but enough to seriously hurt. Usually their ridicule didn’t delve into such violence, but sharp words spoken by their hands and fingers could cut open a tender heart. Myvern liked to think that his will had grown stronger over the years, but it still wasn’t uncommon for a word to pierce through his stoic soul, greatly wounding him. A part of him thought that he could deal with it if only his parents were proud of him. For it was their displeasure that hurt him the most. But there was nothing he could do. He knew the he would always prefer drawing and communing with nature more than he would wielding a spear and shedding blood. Backwards people or not, the idea of shedding Xibian blood was abhorrent to him.
Entering confines of the tribe, he found that hardly anyone was about. The lookouts posted on the towers were vigilant, but they didn’t say a word to Myvern, which was fine by him. The fires gave off a faint glow from inside the sandstone homes, indicating that many a Vun were relaxing after a long day of hunting. They usually mocked him, telling him that he would starve, but Myvern always harvested plenty of edible roots, fruits, and nuts to get by.
Despite the teasing and the vindictiveness, there was a peaceful feeling of returning to his home. A path gradually wound up against the neatly carved out homes of the sandstone cliffs and ridges. The higher up the house, the more likely it was to be carved into the very cliff side itself. Such was Myvern’s home, carved into the very top cliff-side, just under the ledge. Myvern used the light from the stars as well, as the occasional light from the homes, to make his way up the winding path until he came to the ladder that lead up the cliff to his home.
Back inside his abode, Myvern didn’t worry about lighting a fire. The truth was the Vun didn’t need fire to see in the dark. Many only had a fire so that they might properly worship the gods, a symbol of their light and knowledge. But Myvern had felt that the gods had forsaken him long ago. Why have a fire when he was in the always in the dark? In fact, he did very little to honor the gods, unless it was praying for the well-being of trees, which he adored with the deepest of reverence.
Lack of light wasn’t a problem. The stars glittering outside gave adequate light to see the faint features of his abode. He could see the hearth, the table in the middle, the knitted rug below it, and the doorway to his room.
Myvern crawled into his bed and tucked himself tightly under the covers, away from the problems of the world. In the gentle embrace of his bed he slipped into sleep.
The rays of morning light, shining on his feet, alerted him that it was time to get up. Myvern had learned long ago to have his feet, and not his head facing towards the window, lest he wanted the bright sunlight to burn his eyes. He yawned and stretched. He didn’t want to spend too much time in bed. He had his garden to attend to at the top of the plateau. He quickly cleaned up and then got dressed before heading out the hatch above the ladder by his bed.
The hatch and the ladder hadn’t always been there. Originally, there had been a gaping hole where the hatch. He had never needed to ask his parents why they had moved him to a cliff-side cave where rain could get in. They had wanted to punish him for being abnormal. But it didn’t matter. While they had initially caused him some discomfort, he had turned the situation to his advantage. By the time he had finished constructing the ladder and crawling out of the hole onto the top of the plateau, he had found a magnificent view waiting for him. To further his good fortune, he had found that the plateau, though mainly sandstone, had a small portion of perfect soil for gardening. He had no idea how such soil got there. It almost seemed like a miracle, considering the rest of the plateau was ridged sandstone. Nonetheless, from then on he made use of the good soil to plant a small garden of fruit bushes, vegetables, and herbs. He had considered planting some trees as well, but decided against it in case the roots cracked through his roof. The rest of the work had gone by smoothly. It hadn’t taken him long to create a hatch out of the hole.
Myvern climbed up the ladder and opened the hatch to the plateau, stepping out to feel the gentle breeze caress his skin and blow his hair. He breathed in deeply the coming of autumn. It was the beauty of touch. His parents, who had always loathed him, had never touched him except out of anger. He envied children whose parents cradled them rather than hit them. He felt a longing for a gift that he had never been privileged to have. He was ashamed when he felt the wind blow some of the tears streaming down his face. He had told himself long ago that this didn’t affect him. He wouldn’t let it now. He had work to do. The garden needed watering.
Thankfully, there were plenty of sandstone basins that held rainwater through the seasons. A clay jug by one of the basins was used to scoop out the water. He took the jug, submerged it in one of the basins of water and sprinkled just enough on his plants. Since it wasn’t too hot out because of the encroachment of autumn, the plants only needed a little bit of water. When it was summer they always needed more. But it wasn’t all hard work when it was hotter out. During the summer the basins of water were delightful to swim or float in.
He looked at his garden in satisfaction. He had worked tirelessly throughout the years to harvest the many different seeds from a plethora of vegetables and fruits. This hadn’t been easy, as vegetation was a bit sparse in the Vun inhabited regions. Yet, his persistence in searching the wetter areas of the canyon during the rainier seasons had paid off, and in time his efforts had yielded a garden of edibles. His summer crops were nearly depleted, but that wasn’t a problem as his fall crops of binyu beans and dool roots were nearly ripe. Collecting vegetable and fruit seeds was a momentous labor in his region, but it was well worth it if he didn’t have to kill an animal. This alone gave him peace of mind.
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