The next morning, Tian awoke groggily. There was a set of blankets wrapped around him and a steaming bowl of grains near his head. He sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes right as Maria entered with a glass of milk in hand.
“You’re awake?” Maria stated before setting down the drink. She sat on the edge of the bed and pressed her hand against Tian’s forehead. “Thankfully, you’re not running a fever.”
“I’ve only been sick once, and that was two years ago when I fell into a crevice filled with a dark goo. It was like quick sand, but so much colder. Well, maybe not two years ago...” Tian stated, stretching his arms out.
Maria chuckled quietly. “There’s no goo here, eat up so I can take you around the village today. I have some errands to run this morning, and the kids are dying to meet you so…”
“There’s other kids?” Tian asked in excitement, his eyes flared gold briefly.
“Those eyes are… they’re amazing, how do you change the color?” Maria commented.
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. When I’m under stress or my emotions run high, they change. My strength changes to, I’m twice as strong afterwards. Faster. But I never had the chance to test it out much beneath the surface. The caves were tight.”
“Are we going to have to teach you how to master your abilities? Oh boy, I can already feel the bones I’m gonna break,” Maria teased, poking Tian in the shoulder. “Anyway, get ready. The other kids are waiting to meet you.”
Maria stood and trekked out of the room, leaving Tian’s door slightly ajar. He picked the bowl up and dug in. The mash was sweeter than last night’s surprisingly, but his stomach didn’t dare complain. It screamed for more than just what Maria had given him. But Tian’s instincts kicked in and he found that he could only eat slow and not even the whole bowl. It was frustrating. The milk was good though. It was thick, like a fluffy syrup that his mother made from a plant his mother had called hazelroot. This was more buttery though, and still slightly warm.
Once he was ready, he found a set of oversized clothes waiting for him. A thick woolen sweatshirt and thick pants. There was even underpants, something that Maria had to instruct on how to put them on. She slipped fluffy coats on his feet, but she called them socks. They were, in fact, coats for feet. But immediately, his feet reveled in the warmth. When she set a pair of leather shoes down by his feet, Tian took the time to glance up at her only to see the dark circles under her eyes. She’d stayed up during the night to make the clothes for him.
“Thank you Maria,” he whispered and the older woman smiled at him.
“You’re welcome kiddo. Now let me help you get these on your feet. I hope they fit.”
Despite the short exchange, Tian felt something warm in his chest. Never before had anyone ever been that caring towards him, or tried to do something that nice. His mother, for most of his life at least, hadn’t been there. She was around, but she wasn’t there. She didn’t respond to him unless it was time for lessons or to learn something. When Tian was learning language still, she’d been short with him and snapped a lot when Tian hadn’t been able to tell the difference between things like going and meire and those meant close to the same thing. How was he supposed to know that meire meant leaving to never return?
The village was nice, though. Once Maria had gotten some things done in the house, she’d taken him outside into the sun. Unlike Tian’s mother, she answered his questions in terms he could understand. Like why all the houses were centered around a large fire pit instead of spaced out. Apparently, though, it was for when things got bad and food was scarce that they came together to share what little they could find and prayed for better times to come. She’d even sat down to explain that some villages nearby practiced individualism and it was everyone for themselves, but this village under the leadership of the matriarchs and the patriarchs practiced unity and they’ve overcome some of the hardest times together.
She’d taken him to the fields where they held all their animals, domesticated cows and pigs. Except they only slaughtered one of each every year, and most of the time that meat went to the capital. The crop fields were beyond that, spread out in a large ring, accessible by those who tilled the fields and their horses. The village had ten horses. One for the matriarch named Arian and the rest were work horses, tasked to pulling carts and plows. Besides large amounts of corn, wheat and potatoes they farmed smaller fields for the village. Those were hidden from the capital, though, many miles away from the village. It took Old Man Cam a week to travel back and forth.
And when they ran out of those crops, they survived off of what meat they hunted during the spring and summer. Mostly mule deer that roamed the grasslands to the north during those times only to cross the great coast to the south where the continent was split in half during the winter months.
Maria had to leave eventually and follow a man out to the back fields where a cow had gotten injured from a pack of mountain wolves. So Tian sat on one of the logs near the center of the village, holding a thick bound book with the surface’s history before the Kukouk came from beneath. He lifted his head long enough to see a bunch of red headed boys pass by, tossing a round stitched object back and forth.
“Andrew, go long!” A boy around Tian’s age shouted. He seemed to be already 5 foot with the reddest hair Tian had ever seen. His face was littered with thousands of tiny brown dots, much like the other two boys.
“Axel!” The boy, Andrew shouted as he threw the ball back and it passed through Axel’s hands. It landed near Tian’s feet.
Axel came over and passed in front of him, tilting his head. “You’re a Kukouk?”
Tian nodded. “Half-human, to.”
“You’re beautiful. Imma protect you like my dad protected my mom,” Axel stated confidently, popping his chest out. “What’s your name? I’m Axel Fairchild, son of the late Henry Ash. He was an amazing hunter, and I’ll be following in his footsteps.”
“Tian Ashtur… uh, actually it’s Tian Hansen,” Tian replied quickly, putting his book down quickly.
“Tian Hansen, it’s a pleasure to meet you. We’re going to be best friends. Do you want to play with us?”