Tian was used to hunger by now. It gnawed at his belly day in and day out. He’d crawled his way back to the surface without any knowledge of how to live on a land governed by the sun. The animals were quicker and smarter, jumping every trap he’d tried to build. He couldn’t find plants that were edible, and had almost lost his life a multitude of times. Each time, when he was on death’s door, life would flood into him. He’d be sustained for another day of useless struggle and gnawing pain. Huge clawed beasts had bore down on him, forcing him up tall trees to survive. He could read the signs, though, pointing to civilization. It was his only hope. He was dying, and it was his last ditch attempt at survival.
He’d just turned 14 two days ago, but he was half the size he should have been. The first of his father’s people had been smaller in stature as well, having to have lived with low ceilings all their lives. That and the lack of nutrients below the surface had put their bodies into a constant state of survival. He was thin, bony even and he could feel every single one of his sharp ribs. He knew his face was gaunt and hollow looking. It wouldn’t be long until his death, and he had accepted it. Some days, when the pain became too much, he prayed for death. He welcomed it with open arms. Whatever force that kept him alive, it worked tirelessly. It was the fire that filled his bones on the cold, bitter nights and the light that guided him forward when it was too dark to see his own toes. It refused to give up, like a hand on his shoulder. Whispering ‘almost there, just a little further’. And so he kept trudging, day after day until he couldn’t feel his legs.
He’d been following a fast flowing river for a few days now, trying to catch some of the fish inside the currents but failing. A primal instinct kept him far from the river’s bank, like a warning. Back home, they got their water from the roots and the small water pockets within the walls. It was always loaded with minerals there and tasted metallic on the good days. Here, it was fresh and good. He figured if he was going to die of starvation, then he might as well have good water. There were edible plants, though. He’d found them on accident, and they’d been good, although tough and chewy. He’d quickly found out that only the roots were edible and had to be dug down to. They were rare along the water’s edge. He didn’t dare cross the river, either, because the water was too fast and would rip his weak body from its stance in a second. Plus, it was too cold. The ground beneath his bare feet wasn’t warm, and he was constantly getting knocked over by the freezing, howling winds. The trees would sway above him like skeletal fingers, creaking and groaning as they moved. During those nights, he couldn't sleep. During the nights when the light disappeared from the land to some place the boy didn’t know, the bitter winds carried icy water from the sky. It rained down on his shoulders, freezing him to his core. With thin clothing, the boy could only curl up underneath a tree with a tiny, weak fire and shiver. He counted his seconds until the sun reappeared to warm him once again, but those seconds seemed to get longer with each passing day. And it only seemed to get colder, where even his body was fighting to keep his warmth in.
His mom had taught him a lot of the surface world, but the pictures scrawled across the cave walls didn’t do the surface justice. He’d left the huge mountains behind. They’d rose up hundreds of miles above his head, stretching out as far as he could see. She’d told him of the snowy caps at the tops of the mountains, where there could be snow piles bigger than the boy himself. Snow, that’s what he’d never understood until he got to the surface. Below, the water would get so cold that it’d freeze to the walls and his mother would use fire to thaw it so it’d drip once more. It never rained. But here, not only did it rain, but the water got so cold in the skies that it turned white and layered. The snow was beautiful as it fell and as it lay out in front of him across the vast landscape, but it was cold enough to freeze his toes and fingers. The large river, though, it always got him. When the edges started to freeze nearest to the banks, he could almost walk out on it. But when it was warmed, it continued to rip its way through the land. It seemed that the land bowed to the water here. He'd been following it for days, and there still was no end.
After another failed attempt at catching fish, he’d sat on a rock and closed his eyes briefly. The hunger was ravaging inside him fiercely and his head swam. For the past two days, he’d been stuffing his stomach with bark. It didn’t do him any justice but it made the pain less. That’s all he could ask for at this point, if he was going to die already, he didn’t want the pain of hunger to be the last thing he felt. Thankfully, his own genetics were what kept him alive so far, regulating his body temperature for the cold and keeping energy flowing through his limbs as he kept traveling. He was starting to have trouble walking, though, much less supporting his own weight. He was starting to stumble more often, and waking up was becoming more difficult. He was at the end of his rope and the boy was prepared to lie down somewhere and go. No more misery, no more hunger.
Later in the day, he’d continued upon his journey only to find a cluster of buildings around the bend. A cluster of buildings meant people and people meant food. His mother’s warning passed through his head, but the hunger was too much for him to stop. He ran and the closer he got, the more people he could see out and about. Horse drawn carriages passed alongside a cleared path carrying food or rocks. At least that’s what he assumed the bundles were. He waited for dark when the village seemed to be disappearing into their homes to raid what food he could find.
He’d found a pile of rotting vegetables and his eyes glazed over. He cleaned off what he could with his thin rags for clothing and shoved the vegetables into his mouth. He gagged over the taste and smell, but he didn’t dare throw up what he’d gotten his hands on. He crept further along the sides of the houses, staying as far away from the pillars of fire as he possibly could. He found a stall, after that, and under the sheets that covered the top were the fruits his mother had once told him about. They were sweet and a hundred times better then what he’d just eaten. He was stuffing his pockets when light appeared behind him. He turned around slowly only to feel a gun pressed against his forehead. His mother had taught him about those, too. They were cursed.
“Who the fuck are you? And why are you stealing from my stall? Maria get your ass out here, we got a thief!”
The boy kept his face down, effectively hiding what made him stand out from the normal humans. A weak door opened behind him and he heard footsteps, but he didn’t turn to look. Not with a gun pointed at his forehead. His mother had taught him to survive in a hateful world after all.
“What’s your name kid? Why are you stealing from Old Man Cam?”
“He’s a savage Maria, I don’t think this thing can even understand our language.”
“Take the gun off him, can’t you see the kid is dying? He looks about 10 years old Cam, leave the kid alone!” A woman spoke before grabbing Cam’s arm and lowering the gun. “It’s ok sweetheart, where’s your mom?”
“It speaks!” Cam huffed before putting his gun away. The hostile tension started to ebb away, but Tian was yet to relax.
“Hold on Cam, let me look at that boy’s face?” Suddenly there was light shining right at his face, and his eyes finally met a much older woman’s face. He couldn’t stop the panic from rising in his chest. After all, the stories his mother had told him since he was young were all about death. Kukouk and Kukouk halflings were always slaughtered, shot, drug, chopped to pieces. He’d been raised to believe in the cruel fates that awaited him. Especially in the hands of humans.
People stumbled back in shock, Cam reached for his gun once more. “I thought you’d said those folk aren’t around anymore.”
“They aren’t, the last was killed at the base of the forbidden forest when I was a little girl. Somehow… how old are you kid, where have you been hiding all these years?”
“Did he say 14? There’s no way! At that age, he should be filling his shoes already and be standing taller every sunrise. This kid can’t be a day over ten.”
“I’ve been underground. We don’t grow big under there,” the boy answered.
“Underground? How long were you underground for? Are there more like you? Full-blooded Kukouk?”
“It was just Mom and I, but mom was human. I was down there for 10 years, mom said it was the last safe place for me.”
“Your father, where was he?”
“Humans killed my dad long before I was born. Never met him.”
“What was your father’s name, kid?” An old woman spoke up, pushing her way through the crowd. She looked like his mother before she’d died. Old, wrinkled and feeble.
“Tiantok Ashturokma, son of the last surface chief Moraklis Ashturokma,” the boy stated proudly before adding. “And I am his last living son, the fourth and youngest. I was named after my father, I am Tian Ashturokma.”
“He’s a half-breed Maria, we can’t have that trouble around here. Let’s just give him some food and send him on his way,” a woman quipped worriedly. “Get him some better clothing as well, so he doesn’t freeze to death. What was he thinking, walking all the way here with just a thin shirt and no shoes? We just had one of the worst blizzards of this year!”
“You can’t do that! He’s too young, he’s dying from starvation! He wouldn’t be able to take care of himself out there on his own! He’s lived his whole life underground! He doesn’t know how to care for himself on the surface world! We can’t just send him back out there to die! He’s just a child Ari!” The same woman argued from before. “We have to take him in and take care of him. Maria, I’ll take him in if he stays. But please, don’t let this child die after traveling so far to find us. It was fate that he came here, there’s no other village for miles in any direction! He will die!”
“Shut it, I’m the matriarch and I make the final decisions. I don’t want any arguing from this!”
“He’s a child Maria! You wouldn’t turn any other child away! Just because he’s a half breed doesn’t mean he should die a young death!” The woman pleaded, grabbing the clans woman's arm. “Give the boy a chance. I don’t care what his skin and blood color is, he’s a child and he deserves to live!”
“Silence,” An old woman finally spoke up, and everyone went silent around Tian. She raised a feeble, shaking palm up. “Your father was Tiantok Ashturokma?”
Tian nodded quickly.
“The boy stays, and will be welcomed as one of our own,” the elder woman finally stated. “Tiantok Ashturokma saved my life when I was a much younger woman, still caring for Maria when she was an infant.”
“That was almost 80 years ago elder, there’s no way…”
The elder put her hand up to silence the man. “Young man, how old was your mother when you went below the surface?”
“She said she was 32.”
“What did she die of, to send you back to the surface looking for food?”
“She died in her sleep. She was old, going blind in both eyes and was wrinkly and snow haired,” Tian answered. “I hadn’t known humans lived such short lives, or I would have spent more time with her instead of exploring.”
“She should have been in her 40’s when she died, am I correct? But instead she died of old age, your mother was not 40 my young boy. But below the surface of the Earth, time doesn’t pass the same for the Kukouk. She died, most likely, close to 100 years old, but for you, it was only a small passage of time. For the Kukouk, time almost stands still. They could live for hundreds of years beneath the surface. Boy, you were under there for almost eighty years. Your father, though, he saved my life and for that we will save yours.”
“I’ll take him in as my own,” Maria stated before putting her hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Your name will now be Tian Hansen.”
“But Maria, what will happen when the Warriors come and he’s discovered by the Capital? They’ll easily notice his skin and wonder where he came from. If they don’t kill him first.”
Maria rubbed her chin. “The time of the Kukouk passed almost 50 years ago when the clan in the south passed.”
Old man Cam sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Hopefully we have enough for another mouth to feed this winter. We’re already going to come short from what the Capital will take.”
“I’ll give half my rations to feed him.”
Old man Cam nodded before reaching into his cart to pull out some of the fruit he was storing. “How about, you give up a quarter and I’ll give up a quarter for myself.”
“I’ll give a quarter of mine as well for the boy,” the kind woman offered but Maria shook her head.
“You have kids Jocelyne, I can’t possibly take any food from you this winter.”
“It’s ok. Tian needs food, and I have gone winters with less. It’s ok,” Jocelyne answered joyfully.
Old man Cam pushed the fruit into Tian’s hands and closed his fingers over it. “Here kid, eat this for now.”
Tian stared at the fruit with wide eyes. His stomach growled from just the sweet smell “Thank you.”
“Alright guys, time to go back to bed. I’ll take care of the rest of this in the morning.”
“I’ll bring over some warm mash for Tian as soon as I get home,” Jocelyne offered.
“It’s ok, I don’t want you to have to stand and cook for any longer tonight. I have grains at home to make him some mash.”
“No Maria, it’s alright. I had some made and stored near the fire to keep it warm. My oldest boy is still hunting with the group and I was already up waiting for them to come back in.”
“Alright then. I forgot they were still out chasing the herd. Everyone back into your homes before we all get sick.”
Once inside Maria’s house, she guided him to an old room filled with stacks of material. She sighed as she started moving stuff outside the room. “Sorry, it’s a mess. I’ve been using my old room for blanket and sheet storage. There’s a bed in here, though, for you and you can grab whatever blankets you want to keep you warm. If you get too cold, though, you can sleep in the living room where the fireplace is.”
“Thank you… Maria,” Tian stated. He was still clutching the fruit in his hand, close to his chest.
Maria nodded quickly to him before looking down at his feet. “Kid, you must’ve been freezing. Not only did you have no coat, but no shoes either? I’ll make you some tomorrow. I don’t know what you’re used to, but our shoes are made out of hide so…”
There was a knock at the door and she turned away. “The mash is here, so as soon as you get settled meet me in the kitchen and we’ll get you fed before you go to bed.”
She headed towards the door, finally giving Tian enough time to look around. Maria’s house was the biggest, but it was stuffed full with objects and materials she probably stored for the village. He stared down at the fruit in his hands, a bundle of blue. They were cold, but looked much better than what he’d been eating. He stepped over to the bed and sat down. It was extremely soft, uncomfortably so. His bed underground was a woven sleeping bag outlined in chunks of rock. It was warm where they slept, but never that soft. He hadn’t had a bed since.
He put one of the blue fruits in his mouth and an amazing flavor exploded against his tongue. Something even cave dwellers or bark had never tasted like. His stomach awoke with a ravish appetite and in seconds the blue fruits were gone, but he was still hungry. His hands shook, but from what, he didn’t know.
“Tian, the mash is ready!” Maria called from down the hall.
Tian got up from the bed and made his way into the room where Maria disappeared into. There was a stone table in the middle with much sturdier chairs clustered around. By the far wall were other stone tables and wooden boxes hanging from the walls. A small hatch was carved in the wall with a fire slowly blazing, warming up the rock around it. A small iron pot sat on the stone table. Maria set out a bowl and beckoned for him to sit down.
Maria scooped mash into the bowl and set it in front of Tian before patting him on the shoulder. “Make sure to eat it slowly, ok? But eat it all. Jocelyne also left some cookies for you.”
“Oh yeah, well… these ones we melt down cocoa butter and mix cocoa powder in with it. Also vanilla I think and sugar and honey. It’s a long process, the elder makes the milk chocolate for us when we have enough extra crops to spare to buy cocoa from the capital. They’re good though, trust me. She’s really trying to fatten you up quick.”
“But also you need more vitamins and Calcium, so you’re gonna be drinking a lot of milk from now on.”
“My mother said normal people would never help me. They’d kill me if they found me. Why are you helping me? Even feeding me?”
Mariah pulled out a chair in front of him, eyes fixated on the black lines trailing up his neck. “Not many know this but… I had an older brother once. You met my mom, the village elder, well when she was much younger she fell in love with a young Kukouk man. She was 17, he was 17 and she was destined to be the next village matriarch after her father. This boy, though, she loved him so much that when my father found out, he was allowed to stay. They protected him to. Until my mother fell pregnant with the half-breed. My grandfather died in an accident shortly after that. A simple hunting accident and my mother became the matriarch. But… the capital found out eventually and they came for the Kukouk man and my brother. They didn’t last long after that. 20 years later, my mother remarried and had me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Tian replied. “I had many siblings I never knew as well. The loss… although you never knew them, it still hurts. An empty ache.”
Maria ruffled Tian’s hair. “It’s ok kid, we’re going to keep you safe this time. Your mother would be proud of you for finding us. Now eat up so you can get your strength back.”
The spirit that had guided him the whole way there, taking the pain of hunger from his belly in long spurts, whispered in his ear. “You did well. You’re safe now.”