CHAPTER 2

 

A Quiet Earth

 

When Lusithlaad woke all was quiet in the clearing. Two nights and two days had passed in a flash and he only had a vague recollection of the sunlight that flowed through his veins. Already he felt stronger and more alert than ever before. Stretching out his branches he noticed that they were a little longer and a new bud was starting to grow out of his stem.

He looked around the clearing, and saw that over thirty young miwinien had been planted in the saahn. Up in the central tower Meenala and four others were now planted in their troughs and were just waking up with the setting sun. As the night became darker they quietly groomed one another, picking out the dead leaves, so they remained fresh and green, that is, except for the dead leaves on their ruffles. Those were left in place as a sign of maturity and wisdom, and it seemed that Noosna and Thulian had the most of all.

Outside of the clearing where the forest began there was an assortment of trees, bushes and cycads. There were tall conifer like trees and ones with long brushy branches that hung down from up high. There were others with long stems and large, round fruity bodies growing in clumps up and down their branches, and there were all kinds of horsetail shrubs, club mosses and ferns that covered the ground. Scattered throughout the forest was the occasional large, broad branched tree with rough-hewn bark that seemed to shiver due to streams of tiny insects that crawled up their trunks on the way to their nests.

There was no grass in the land for it hadn’t evolved yet. Instead there was a short, wiry shrub that covered most of the ground, similar to the plant we now know as cooksonia, though the miwinien knew it as spathadahh. It had a thin green and black woody stem, which grew straight out of the ground and split off at regular intervals, terminating in small orangey yellow berries. Some clumps were packed so close together that they created a kind of shelf above the ground, so much so that the miwinien had to pull it out to create distinct pathways through the forest. And living underneath the low canopy of spathadahh were millions of the tiny black bugs as well as larger insects called archimylacris. They were ancient ancestors of the modern day cockroach, and were just as creepy; crawling and crackling all over the branches of the wiry bush, safe in an ecosystem sheltered from the sun and rain. Thankfully the bugs never came near to the Saahn, for something in the soil repelled them; at least, that’s what the soil told him.

As Lusithlaad looked out he noticed two old miwinien clumped together on the fringe of the forest, their wizened stems woody and stiff. They didn’t look like they could bend very well at all, but what made them look more peculiar was the yellow and black fungus that covered their bodies like some kind of mange. It didn’t stop them from living, but it did cause them some irritation he could tell, and the other members of the clan would not allow them to come near, for fear of becoming infected.

While Lusithlaad stared, one of them looked straight into his eye and fanned its leaves aggressively. The youngling turned away instantly, feeling the liquid shoot up through his stem. He felt unnerved and frightened, taking note to be careful who he stared at, but he couldn’t resist to look again, and when he looked back he saw them loping off into the forest. They stopped for a moment and both turned around, the same one catching his eye again. This time there was no aggression. Just a look of sadness as the old miwinien’s eye narrowed with a sense of knowing.

Thulian, who had been watching the interaction from not far away, came over to Luthislaad and laid a gentle leaf on his head. “Don’t be frightened by those two,” he said, rubbing the youngling’s skin.

“Solianth and Oolahn are mostly harmless. Sometimes we can be exposed to such things that become engrained in our flesh and skin, and they never leave us.”

“You must always be careful of what you touch in the forest,” he continued. “Especially the brightest coloured things. Not everything around us is friendly, Lusithlaad, though I think our fungal friends may have taken a liking to you. Be careful of them though, they may be weak, but their minds are not well and I’m not sure they can be trusted.”

Thulian left him while the young miwinien went back to surveying his surroundings. Further out in the forest there were hundreds of zigamons going about their evening business. They were hard at work collecting balls of dirt and taking them up to the treetops, which is where they built their nests. It was a peaceful place with just the soft crunch of leaves under hundreds of light feet. Every now and then a scuffle would break out and hundreds of little pellets of mud would rain down on the forest floor.

One night, just as Lusithlaad was watching, one of the little creatures came falling and crashing down through the tree, only to get one of its eyes caught in the vee of the branches. It dangled there for a moment confused and bewildered, not sure what to do, but then with one mighty pull, it ripped the flower off and went crashing down to the ground. The thing looked quite silly with only four eyes and a single stalk waving around with no purpose. Lusithlaad was fascinated. It wasn’t moving much but it seemed to have survived the fall and clumped down on the ground for a while to recuperate. Before long it was racing back up to the top of the tree with another ball of lovely, damp mud between its stalks as if nothing had happened.

The execlintian eye it left behind in the branches was jammed there with no way to move. The poor thing could only stair bewilderedly for a time until eventually it’s life would leave it, for without food, water and photosynthesis, there was nothing to keep it alive.

Lusithlaad wasn’t aware of the dreadful plight of that small eye any more than the rest of the zigamon that had grown it, so he bent over and rested his branches on the cool soil as he watched the funny scene. Nothing seemed to worry him. The soil that fed him was invigorating and made him feel incredibly vibrant. He wanted to get out and explore; discover what this world had to offer, but he didn’t feel ready to leave just yet. He reached over to Theera with a branch and asked how she was feeling.

He didn’t even realize he was talking. Just as Meenala had said, the soil had made his senses grow and the innate ability to communicate had been activated. Then he felt a tentative touch to his root from under the ground. For a moment he didn’t know what it was, until he heard a little voice. It was Theera and she was tickling him and telling him how she was. It wasn’t the same kind of conversation as the one he’d had through his branches, but something more intimate.

She is interesting, he thought, though a little bit scary with her violet eye. Not to mention her tall crooked stem and those delicate branches, and then he felt her laugh.

“I heard that! I think you’re interesting too, Lusithlaad. Nice and short too!” And his flower opened up nervously for a moment in embarrassment.

What else can she hear, I wonder?

“Oh everything!” she answered, as their leaves rustled excitedly.

 

As the phases of the moon passed by, Lusithlaad and his siblings grew and became more aware of the world around them, while day after day the village filled with more young ones freshly delivered from muplunts in other parts of the birthing grounds. By the time the summer month began, the long month known as Zaalep, the clearing was nearly half full of younglings, all planted and happily growing in the saahn, and as the older ones got bigger they were allowed to venture a little way into the forest, though never too far away. Occasionally they saw an Endrian marching slowly in the distance, and each night they would go out to see its progress, see the next step it had taken and watch as it slowly moved, though the giant trees never came too close to their clearing, for the older miwinien had a way of steering them off course.

It was after a long hot day when Meenala came down from the septhal to set about organizing the older ones into groups. Now they were old enough to start working and she gave strict instructions for what they were to do. Over the next few nights they would venture out into the forests, working together on a task that was essential for the wellness of their clan. In groups they would travel to the farthest reaches of the land to gather certain ingredients that would be used to make saahn and sonlah – the special soil that the elders lived on. It was a very special task, for it gave the clan great health and joy to have good food, and the recipes of this clan were some of the most prized throughout Miwinia. Only the elders knew the secret ingredients and Meenala was being let in on the recipe for the first time.

Lusithlaad and Theera’s group set off straight away and travelled southwest, dragging their light young bodies over the forest terrain for most of the first night until they were able to find their balance and to pogo-hop along like the adults. It came quite naturally to them to travel this way, although they were still quite slow. They also tried to roll up and follope, but that turned out to be much harder as they so easily fell off course and crashed into trees. So they just practiced when they could and hopped along most of the time.

At times when they stopped to rest they were shown how to make big baskets, weaving long thick leaves together that could hold dirt and other refuse they collected along the way. They were simple and rudimentary containers, but once attached to a group of zigamons, they made great carts for carrying things. The zigamons didn’t like it at all, but they were tied together with a kind of stinging nettle that kept them under control and allowed the adults to make them go wherever they wanted. The hardest part was catching the zigamons they needed to tie up, but the younglings were good at that and had lots of fun doing it.

They travelled far each night, becoming more proficient and faster all the time. At one point they came to a fast moving river, far bigger than the little creeks they’d crossed until now. They searched along the riverbank until they came to high mound on the waters edge, with a path that spiralled upwards and around it.

Teelith, the leader of their party and a lot older than Meenala, called them all to a halt and they held branches while she prepared them for the crossing.

“Here we will go under the river,” she said. “It will be wet but the roots will keep the tunnel open. Once it is open, you must all go through as quickly as you can. Meenala and I will come after. Be alert, especially on the other side, for the rivers edge has many dangers and there are river creatures we do not know. Be careful if you see any for they can come out of the water and have been known to catch the smaller ones.”

They followed the path upwards as it wound around the side of the mound and at the top came to a kind of overhang that was the remnants of a giant old tree. There was new growth on the upper side of the tree with branches and leaves spread out into the light, but the root structure of the tree made up the most of it. The mass of roots all folded over each other in a kind of lattice, with the larger roots on the outside and smaller ones in the middle. Above them, the old tree trunk had grown down over the roots, to strengthen and protect the structure from the wind and rain, creating the natural overhang.

“Come Meenala, you will do this with me,” commanded Teelith.

They moved up close and wrapped their roots around the largest of the trees roots. Holding on tight to the sides of the trunk with their leaves, they started to hum and vibrate, communing with the old tree. Slowly at first, but then faster it started to move, the smaller roots on the inside pulling apart and moving outwards from the centre of the structure. As it opened up, a small tunnel began to appear within the roots until it was large enough to fit a small miwinien.

Theera went in first, as the rest of the roots continued to open out in front of her, the live wood creaking. She dragged her body over the entrance and headed downwards into the tunnel, the dry earth falling in crumbs onto her leaves while the rest followed warily until all ten were climbing down behind her. Lusithlaad was the last of the younglings and really had to push against his fear as he entered the darkness of the tunnel. Something inside him told him it was not natural to go underground into darkness, and all he wanted to do was race back out again and rush for home, after all they were creatures that lived in the light, not underground. To make matters worse, one of them had seen a large strange water creature lurking around. It was one of those strange things with jaws and teeth that somehow tore and chewed its food instead of absorbing it through a root. How it survived in this world none could tell. Zoulith had seen it come onto shore at a rapid pace and she was convinced it was coming behind them into the tunnel. Lusithlaad was sure he could hear the sound of its four legs crunching on the leaves, its tail swinging behind. When he felt something touch the his ruffle it made him jump so far in the air that he rolled into a follope and crashed straight down onto Nantisthlaad and then over him into Zoulith, sending both of them into a panic. He pinned himself up against the root wall in blind fear of the thing, only to realize it was Meenala coming in behind him with Teelith just behind her.

“It’s only me, Lusithlaad. There is nothing that can harm you in here.” But he still wasn’t convinced.

Even so, he and Nantisthlaad and Zoulith continued on and by the time they came to the bottom of the tunnel they could see the light at the other end while the river water was raining down on them from above, though not too heavily, for the roots were firmly wound together, making a strong seal. When Theera poked her head out at the other end, all looked safe, so she dragged herself out to help the others. It wasn’t long before Meenala and Teelith were coming out and the tunnel started to close up again.

“How old is this tree?” asked Theera.

“It’s ancient. It was planted by the amunzas many years ago, even before our septhal was made, though I don’t know when. It is very old and weak now, and says it won’t be able to do this much longer. It told us to take some of its regrowth and plant in it another spot along the river so it can grow afresh and build a new tunnel. This one will do,” Teelith said, pulling a large clump from the side of the trunk.

 

The rest of their journey seemed to go more slowly than before as the air became thinner and the sun felt even hotter on their skin. The plant life in this area was very hardy and dry looking. The whole atmosphere was so dehydrating that it made them feel far more tired than usual. Teelith seemed nervous and said it would get worse before they reached their destination for the air was even thinner there. Dark clouds were forming in the south and she warned them to keep an eye out for any spot fires in the forest, if there was lightning.

To add to the exhaustion, they were being bugged by millions of small flies and tiny gnats that buzzed around and kept biting them. They had to be careful of hairy brown caterpillars too, for they kept falling onto their leaves and eating their flesh. The little things seemed to come from nowhere.

As the landscape changed, it became less hospitable for execlintians in general so that there were no longer any eyes following them from within the forest. Not even trotings were in the trees above. In fact, as he thought about it, Lusithlaad hadn’t seen any execlintians other than themselves since they’d crossed under the river.

“These are not lands for us to live in,” was all that Teelith would say.

He asked Meenala if she knew why execlintians didn’t live in these parts, and all she said was that the air was too thin and the land too dry and hot.

“These parts are more suited to other creatures not of our kind.” She pointed into the undergrowth, off to the side of the track where there were large mounds of insect nests standing out of the earth. In another part there were holes in the ground that were covered in dirty white webs. On some of the trees there were other dark growths surrounded by hundreds of large wasp-like creatures that buzzed around frantically. He hadn’t noticed them before, but now he knew what he was looking for he realized they were everywhere.

“They live here and we live in our land. It has always been that way. They stay in their lairs and keep to themselves when we come through their land. I think it is our scent that repels them and keeps us safe,” Meenala explained.

For the rest of the night Lusithlaad kept noticing more shapes in the forest and wondered what they were, but he didn’t ask for no one seemed to want to talk about them. The path they followed seemed to wind its way deliberately through the forest, running between beds of spathadahh, keeping them well away from these strange obstacles. At some points they had to slow right down while Teelith negotiated a new path, tearing the spathadahh out of the ground to steer them away from new nests that had been built up or dug in since the last time the clan had been this way.

One thought kept whispering through Lusithlaad’s mind, one truth that would not leave him. We don’t belong here, it said. We shouldn’t be here.

 

Early on the following night they came upon their destination; a place that was cooler, with moistness and movement to the air unlike the tinder dry lands they’d crossed over the past few days. Despite the moisture, the air was even harder to breathe, so they had to move deliberately, slowly, otherwise they had to rest more often, which slowed them down too much. Unlike the quiet earth they’d come to know, this place was full of loud noise and wind, with a thunder that rumbled through the ground and scared all the young ones right down to their roots.

Meenala told them not to be scared, but their instinct told otherwise. As they moved forward with every swing of their three-pointed step, the rumble became louder and the soil became salty and gritty, and not very nice tasting at all. When they pulled themselves up over a small hillock they were suddenly hit with a harsh, salty wind that blew cold through their leaves and branches. There in front of them was a gigantic dark blue plain like nothing they’d seen before. Its surface seemed alive as it heaved and swelled like some kind of endless amorphous creature. At its closest edges it was white and frothing, moving back and forth across the dirty grey soil that lay at its edges, creeping outwards before edging back again. It seemed like an eternity as they resisted the instinct to run away, but Meenala commanded them to stay, so they stayed where they were planted until it was clear that this creature was not coming any closer than it already had.

The waves of the sea pounded on the beach in front of them while the sand speckled with tiny glints of mica that reflected the light of the large three-quarter moon. This was the giant northern ocean that went on to be part of the massive body of water that covered most of the planet and was home to giant jellyfish and primitive sea creatures that were barely recognisable to anything we know now.

“What is this place?” one of the younglings asked.

“It is the ocean.”

“Where does it go?” asked Theera.

“Nowhere,” said Teelith. “At least nowhere for us. It leads to the stars, and sometimes to the moon and sun, but we can’t go there. This ocean will not allow us to travel in it. We must be content to live in the lands between.”

They weren’t sure what she meant.

“The lands between Qualia and the ocean,” said Meenala. “It has always been.”

And that was all they said.

Lusithlaad was scared stiff of the noise and wouldn’t go beyond the sand dunes, but it was Theera who took the first step. She took two of his leafy hands in hers and led him down onto the beach. They loped right up to the shore and Theera even let it touch her ruffle, but Meenala put a stop to that before it went too far.

“Do not let it touch you,” she said. “Too much of this water is poison and will dry you out. We cannot survive in this place for too long, though a tiny little bit can be good for you.”

And that’s why they were here. To collect the debris that would make their soil tasty and nutritious. All along the shore there were deposits of seaweed, dried kelp, ammonoid shells and the occasional carcass of a sea creature. There were quite a few starfish and lots of blue bottle jellyfish with long thin stingers that spread across the sand. They also found a number of strange plant-like creatures called crinoids. Usually you’d find these creatures firmly anchored to the rock bed, but for some reason the sea had risen to a fearsome turmoil and ejected them from its depths.

One of the young ones found a very strange creature lying dead on the shore. It was about a metre long with flat fins running down each side of its long, transparent tapered body, with two large spiky tentacles protruding from its head. Unlike any execlintians it had a large square mouth on the underside of its body and two eyes sticking out on short stalks, but strangest of all was its body, for this creature was translucent and almost hollow.

Teelith flapped her branches and opened her floral eye with laughter when she saw the strange thing. It wasn’t a creature at all, she said, but the skin of one.

She didn’t know what kind of creature had left its skin behind and she wasn’t about to guess. Most likely it was a schinderhannes bartelsi or some late form of laggania, though all such creatures are extinct in the modern age.

“There are some creatures in the world that are not execlintian and this is one of them,” she explained. “Look at the square hole on its underside. The mouth of this creature has sharp teeth and would eat your branches if you got too close! Don’t you ever go into the sea or they’ll eat you!”

The younglings were even more scared of the sea at that thought. Teelith said the skin would be good to add to the mix, though, so they put it in their basket and carried on. Lusithlaad stayed close to Theera as they explored the beach and made sure none of them went too close to the frothing, advancing waves.

There was lots of other useful debris on the beach except for one dead creature that Nantisthlaad found. It was a conondont – an ancient eel like creature – but its flesh was rotted so badly and the stench so foul that even Teelith wasn’t game to take it home. All they did was collect the best bits on the beach and soon set off home again, travelling as far as they could that night, despite their exhaustion, so as to get away from the sea with its thin air before daybreak came.

It was evening on the second night of their return journey, when one of the younglings was practicing her folloping and falling about all over the place. The youngling, who Lusithlaad didn’t know very well, called Selsleck, had wandered off the path and gone crashing into a gigantic mound of mud. To her surprise a swarm of giant meganeuras came flying out of their large holes, for the mound was a giant insect nest. For moments they buzzed around her floral head, the sound of their wings beating so loud and fast that the vibration drove deep into the younglings stems. They were frighteningly beautiful creatures, for they looked a bit like modern dragonflies only much larger with a one-metre wingspan, an iridescent blue body and two large stings hanging prone on their tails. They swooped and dived around the youngling, flicking her with their stinging tails. One of them tried to pick her up by the head in its long legs and carry her away, but the weight was to great. She tried to hop away but the thing held on, giving her more lift with every jump. For a moment she was off the ground and flying through the air, only to be dropped down again into a thicket of spathadahh.

The rest of the younglings ran for cover while more of the meganeuras swooped around. Nantisthlaad was stung, while the others escaped. It seemed that the giant insects weren’t interested in anything more than keeping them away, and once the miwinien were out of range, they returned to their nest, buzzing around furiously and fussing over the young they were protecting.

Teelith and Meenala inspected the wounds where the younglings had been stung. There was no pain but the wounds were deep and some of them oozed a black liquid. Nantisthlaad felt fine, as his was only small in his stem, but Selsleck wasn’t feeling very well at all, for she’d been stung on the back of her head.

Folding back her eye, Teelith could see where the blackness had gone into her petals and the folds of her brain. She soon started to feel woozy and clumped down on the ground to fall asleep, just as the skies opened up and it started to rain. Meenala lifted her up and placed her in a basket attached to the zigamons.

“We will need to keep a close watch on this one,” she said. “We don’t know what these flying creatures can do. They never come into our lands to bother us, so we should not have bothered them.”

 

The journey back was slow and sombre; for Selsleck became more and more restless as her body was taken over with the poison, her branches flapping about and making it hard to control the zigamons that carried her. The other younglings were also upset, their daytime dreams full of flying things and black poison. On the second night she was still and died of the wound in her head, her body limp and dehydrated. All they could do was carry her home where she would go back to earth and be added to the soil that fed the clan.

By the time they arrived, all of the young ones were beyond exhaustion. They had dragged their stemmy bodies over all kinds of hills and rocks and dead tree graves, and it had rained the rest of the way back. For four whole nights and days the sky had been full of storm and clouds, with fierce lightning frightening them all the way and in that time they hadn’t seen the sun at all. There had been no shortage of good watery soil, in fact a lot of their pathways had been so flooded that they’d had to cross over on fallen tree trunks and branches, carefully balancing to get through, but most of all they were missing the sun and their stems were waterlogged and their branches hung low on the ground.

Noosna met them as they arrived and without a word she herded them straight into their trenches where they were greeted by the most succulent, fresh saahn they’d ever tasted. With all that journeying and hard cold dirt they’d forgotten how delightful their special soil was, and the air on their skin was so much more rich and vibrant here. It was enough to give them a whole new lease of life in the short time they had before falling asleep. In fact, for a moment it was a party in there as the soil spoke to them and filled them with the knowledge and language of the earth until they were so tired again that they fell asleep and didn’t wake up for three nights and three days, for on the third day the sun came out again and they all enjoyed the rich warmth flowing through their branches, as the steam rose from the thick soaked ground.

They slept deeply and dreamt little, but that evening, not long before the sun went down, they were all woken by a surprise visitor who came rolling into the clearing, taking everyone, even Verecca by surprise.


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