By N O Sweat-Mann
An Under the Aurora short story
Taluun felt completely mouldy. Did anyone other than Jhaay care about him? His last two meals had not reappeared in a painful and disgusting manner so his life prospects were somewhat looking up. No sooner had he stopped throwing up, his elders had conveniently forgotten how glad they were that he hadn’t died. Punishment had been speedily executed.
“Flaming report,” he muttered darkly, as word symbols danced on the page. Why did they need to know how he and Jhaay had flooded the old storage cavern anyway? It rained twenty-two of the twenty-six months of the rotation and everyone lived underground, so it wasn’t like flooded caverns were unusual.
Sighing, he ran his hand back through unruly dark locks. The puce fabric parchment was a red hot mess: lots of symbols round the wrong way, smudged ink, torn hole where the stylus had dropped. During a lapse of concentration a caricature had somehow emerged; an angry face looking suspiciously like his mother. Not that it mattered, it wasn’t like anyone would read the stupid thing. Across the cave his cousin Jhaay was frowning in concentration, or maybe constipation, he’d been just as sick. Jhaay’s script was also messy, but the account he scribed would be detailed, accurate and well crafted. Complete with word symbols facing the correct directions. If their elders ever seriously wanted to read how they had nearly killed themselves, it would be Jhaay’s account before their eyes, not his.
His cowl rustled and an almost inaudible peep was heard over the scratching of Jhaay’s stylus. The small animal he had hidden in the folds of his upper clothing stirred restlessly. Not that he could blame it. Being inside, writing stuff, dead boring. A punishment. The infant Flitter having fallen from its nest would have been forest fodder in a heart-beat. He couldn’t leave it. Not all by itself, no mother to love it. Within a few nine day’s it would grow big and vicious enough to be set free and survive. His body heat kept it warm, and scavenging seeds was not difficult. Keeping it undetected and all his fingers proved trickier tasks.
The Flitter’s squeaks became insistent. Storm-blast. Taluun shifted uncomfortably. Flitters wouldn’t soil their nests, his secret pet needed to relieve itself. He shot Gavon, their servant supervisor, a glance. His back was to them, quill silently working. Taluun wrapped his hand in the fabric of his cowl, gingerly removing the little animal from the upper folds. The wicked sharp beak drew blood, but he reckoned he was only heart-beats away from disaster. Or not. Flitter poop did nothing good for his report. Using the edge of the cowl, his attempt to clear it smeared the moist mess. And who would have known how quickly drops of blood soaked into stiffened fabric parchment.
Foot fall in the tunnel. Taluun hastily shoved his protesting forest friend back into his cowl. It had decided parchment was delicious, destroyed a corner fast as lightning. Taluun stuck his bleeding fingers into his mouth as Hath strode into the hewn room.
“My Lady wishes to see her son’s report.” The servant addressed Gavon. Taluun’s heart leapt into his throat and tried a gymnastics routine.
“Why? Lady Solaans does not usually involve herself with Taluun’s lesson’s or script. Try one of these.” Gavon passed Hath a boiled sweet.
Popping a selected delicacy in his mouth, Hath spared Taluun an empathetic glance. “She’s in one of her moods again. He threw up on her favourite rug. These sweets are good.”
He had known coming home was a bad idea. Felt horrible. Almost just died, thought he still might. A moment of weakness. Stupid really.
“The boy’s aren’t finished. Make some excuse, tell Lady Solaans they had other work to do first. I will personally bring the report over, with some sweets, when they are done.”
Hath shrugged as he walked out. “Will do. You can only prolong the inevitable old one, but it’s kind that you wish too.”
Taluun gulped, watched the retreating back of his mother’s drone. So they knew, servant’s always knew everything. His mother never liked him. Constantly nagged for him to be scrapped. If it had been her decision he would have been made a slave long ago. Desperately he tried to clean the parchment. No such luck. How had he possibly made it worse?
“Okay boy, you can finish.” Gavon sighed.
Taluun looked at the mess before him and felt sick. Again. Completely revolting. Brown poop, red blood, grey ink, torn and crumpled parchment the colour of his recent vomit. Not an awesome colour combination. His mother was going to love that. He was so going to scrapped.
“Come on mate, lets go, you look like you could use some fresh air.” Passing his parchment Jhaay managed to stub his toe on the elderly servants stool. Gavon dignified Jhaay by pretending not to notice.
“Help yourself to some sweets. Also remember, stay out Lady Solaans way. No Top-side, no riding, no forest, no Nisaayans, no courtyard, no trouble. Do you understand?”
“Er, thanks Gavon.” Jhaay took a couple of sweets. Taluun grunted. Of course. All his favourite things, off limits. Again. He was fairly sure childhood was supposed to be the time of your life when you were allowed to have fun. Why did adults always mess with that?
“Any chance I can have another piece of parchment, try again?” He asked hopefully.
Gavon shook his head. “No time son. Everyone is curious how in a few heart-beats you two managed to flood a room that had survived for hundreds of rotations.”
“Just pure dumb luck.” Jhaay winced.
“You two attract it.” The elderly servant showed no surprise as he collect Taluun’s revolting parchment.
“It was my fault, I have put in in my report. Don’t see why Taluun should be punished as well.” Jhaay sighed.
“No mate, I messed up too. Stupid plug, how were we supposed to know what it was. And that it would bust. And that gushing water would make a little hole big so quick. Weird how it all went from fun to a red hot mess in heart-beats.” Taluun shivered involuntary.
“You were lucky to get out alive.” Gavon shook his head.
“Er, if we can’t do any fun stuff, can I have a couple of parchments, for a research project, please?” Jhaay had his wide-eyed and winning smiley face on. Taluun wished he had one of those.
“Sure, and I am serious. Stay. Out. Of. Trouble.” Gavon handed Jhaay a couple of sheets.
Their was nothing to do but leave. One last longing look at the parchment bearing his fate, Taluun let Jhaay lead him to the tunnel.
“How bad did you mess up?” Jhaay whispered.
“What? How’d you know I messed up?” Taluun didn’t want to talk about it.
“Experience. You asked to re-work it. Never wanted to do more script work before.” Jhaay raised an eyebrow.
That was the problem of having a smart cousin. “I’m forest fodder. None of the word symbols would stay in the right way around.”
“Er, our elders understand about that?” Jhaay stumbled, Taluun grabbed his arm before he face planted. Picked up the parchment’s he had dropped.
“Well, sort of drew a picture. Of mum, with her angry face on.”
Jhaay gulped. “Will she recognise it?”
“Storm blast.” Jhaay bit his lip. “Listen, your mother’s not that into reading, she possibly won’t look at your report straight away. What about I write the word symbols out for a short report on one parchment and you copy them onto the other. Then we switch the new parchment you make with the one you messed up?” Jhaay chocked on his sweet and Taluun spent a few moments hitting him on the back so he could breathe again.
“Why don’t you just write it out for me, and we swap it.” Taluun grinned. Awesome. Jhaay had the best plans.
“I’m left handed, you’re right. Our scripts slope differently, your mother will recognise if it’s not your hand.”
Taluun looked from his hands to Jhaay’s. His were bigger, like the rest of him, which was weird, on account of he was six month younger than Jhaay. Never realised they made script with different hands. Getting left from right correct was one of those pesky things he could only manage about half the time.
“Cool, good plan. But at least lets go top-side while we suffer.”
“Nope, if we do that you will only get distracted. Come on, I know where there is an empty work room.”
“Moss and mould. Enough people tell me I get distracted too quick without my best mate reminding me.”
“Er okay. Let’s use this room, it’s closer than top-side.” Jhaay gave him the winning smile and wide eyed treatment. How could he resist?
Doing stuff, any stuff, with Jhaay, was always better than doing it alone, or with anyone else. For one thing Jhaay nearly always had some sort of tune thing going on in his head, and when it was just the two of them he would often hum or sing. They both liked music, animal’s, riding, games and possessed the super-powers of fidgeting and finding fun. Or trouble, sometimes they were the same thing. Jhaay scripted each symbol, Taluun copied. It took a flaming long time, but his mother was only slightly more interested in reading than he was. Hopefully he would be safe.
“I reckon that’s enough. Anymore and she’ll know it’s not mine.” Taluun looked with some pride at the only slightly smudged parchment.
“Now we just have to steal back your other one.” Jhaay rolled the fabric carefully.
“It ain’t stealing, I wrote the mouldy thing, you want’a pass me that?” Taluun gestured to his masterpiece.
“Anyone seeing you with a parchment would immediately think it suspicious, and that Flitter in your cowl may chew on it.” Jhaay scratched his back.
“Okay, but don’t trip up, and rip it, or anything.”
Jhaay grinned, placed the parchment safely in his cowl. “I’ll try, just for you.”
Taluun shook his head. Tripping up was just what Jhaay did. He never fell far, on a count of the fact he was only a little bloke, but still after all that work he didn’t want the mould parchment ripped.
They made their way through the convoluted tunnels and passage ways to the rooms designated to his mother’s House. Taluun hated underground. Bryophyte kept the tunnels lit but they were constantly cool, hewn from hard unyielding rock. The air screamed with a stillness so different to his perpetual motion.
Taluun jerked Jhaay out of the tunnel and into a recess. “Gavon.” He hissed a warning.
The elderly servant was leaving.
“Thank you for the sweets.” Hath waved him off.
“You are welcome.” Gavon headed down along a divergent tunnel branch.
In the shadows Taluun calmed his racing heart. Jhaay rubbed his arm. Hugging the tunnel wall, the boys entered he House quietly. Jhaay made it all the way to the great-room without damaging himself. Heavy damask curtains hung limp and still, separating the tunnel from the room. Silence. Empty? Taluun peeked inside. Looked vacant. He moved the curtain slightly.
Storm-blast. Hath, messing with a floral arrangement on a small table next to the central couch. Yes. The parchment was on the table next to a bowl of sweets. Taluun let the curtain drop and took a deep breath. So his mother hadn’t seen it. Not yet. He made the appropriate hand signals to tell Jhaay. They were so close, maybe, he had a chance after all.
Jhaay tugged his cowl. The Flitter squeaked.
‘What about I go round the main entry and make some sort of distraction. When Hath comes to investigate you can swipe your parchment?’ For a guy who was a complete klutz’s Jhaay’s hand signals were excellent.
Taluun nodded. He hoped Hath had not heard the Flitter, the animals had more brains than to live underground. Jhaay sprinted off.
Using all his self-control Taluun tried not to fidget. The scent of the flowers almost completely masked the waft of stale vomit that reached hiding place. He never intentionally upset his mother. Most of the things she disliked about him were completely out of his control. How could he do anything about not being a girl? Or knowing left and right? And chucking up had been completely involuntary. In the distance he heard someone choking. Jhaay? Taluun nearly bolted through the curtain to help his cousin. Stopped just in time. Was this the distraction? He hoped Jhaay wasn’t really in need of help. Hath hustled from the room.
Taluun wasted no time. Sprinted from his hiding place. Snatched the puce parchment. Moss and flaming mould. Jhaay had his replacement. So much for their cunning plan. Footsteps. Taluun bolted back to behind the curtain.
“Er, thanks. Must have choked on something. A sweet to suck would be awesome.” Jhaay’s voice, a little scratchy.
“And where is my second-son?”
His mother. Sneering. Never good. Taluun’s heart rate tripped. When had she entered the room? He stood stock still not daring to move. The curtain was slightly parted.
“My Lady, I am sure Taluun does not wish to disturb you.” Hath was smooth, soothing.
“They are always together. What mischief are you up to little nephew? What’s in your cowl?”
Taluun saw his mother pluck the re-worked parchment from Jhaay.
“Er, that’s Taluun’s report, for you.” Jhaay had his wide eyed innocent face on, but his olive skin was red.
“My Lady, Gavon must have sent the boy. Thank you master Al’Jhaay.” Heth gestured dismissal and stood in front of the table with the sweets.
“Come, you will read it to me.” Lady Saloon gestured to Hath. “We will amuse ourselves with his pathetic attempts.”
Fabric swished, Heths chuckles retreated. Jhaay tripped on the fringe of the floor rug and nearly ripped the damask curtain from its rod. The boys retreated to a hidden niche at the back entrance of Taluun’s mothers House.
“Did you get it?” Jhaay asked.
“Yep. Do you reckon Heth was covering for us?”
Jhaay nodded. “He offered me a sweet from Gavon.”
Taluun was silent for a moment, thinking it through. “Didn’t know he cared.”
“Why are you surprised? You mothers opinion isn’t an indication of your worth. Plenty of other people care about you. I think even our elders punishments are just their way of trying to keep us safe.”
The Flitter wanted to poop again. He removed it without damaging his fingers and smoothed out his parchment. Only it wasn’t his parchment, Gavon had also crafted another and pulled his own switch. Taluun’s fingers shook. Did even crusty old Gavon care about him? Jhaay noted Gavon’s script and a grin split his face.
“Sorry to put you through all that work for nothing.” Jhaay chuckled.
Maybe the world under the vale was not such a mouldy place after all.