No one alive remembered the ‘Great Burn’, it was ancient history now that morphed and lost its truths as it moved from tongue to tongue. The one thing that remained constant in its tellings was that the event was frightful and countless many died, without leaving so much as bones behind. That day everything burned, with ferocious flames, with intense heat, and without prejudice. It must have been a hundred years ago, maybe two hundred years ago, but it shaped and altered what was left behind. And it had left very little behind; just a few lost people with nothing much.
It was the fifth Sol of the third week of Edol by the Rotterdam Calendar, and the migration had begun. The heat from the skies was gradually becoming more and more unbearable and the waters were quickly evaporating. Streams of gushing waters slowed to mere trickles, exposing all the bedrocks below. Everyone was leaving; the once cool landscape surrounded by towering trees, babbling creeks, and rolling fields of green now colored rust to the other side. The great walls of ice had already started to melt and would provide a new source of freshwater, and water-bound creatures for food.
Aya held tightly to her little sister’s hand. It was easy for small ones to get lost in the great numbers. Three migrations ago, she had lost Dayah for four sols. Luckily everyone took care of the small ones, even if they weren’t their own. But it was still very frightening for Aya. Her little sister was all she really had left in terms of family. They had never met their father and their mother was killed by the Underground People. Aya didn’t remember what she looked like very clearly; she was so little back then when it had happened. She tried to not remember either.
They walked closely by Freya and Aeron, who would often share meals with her and her sister. Freya was several years older than her but she was her closest friend. She would keep her two sons occupied while she cooked, they stitched clothing together and she would tell her stories her mother had told her. Freya told her stories of how the world was before the ‘Great Burn’. It all sounded make-believe to Aya but she loved the stories. Their camels were burdened down with everything that was moveable. She and Dayah had everything they owned on a mule named Corn. Dayah’s favorite food. The journey would take three weeks if everything went smoothly and much more if it didn’t. This was the first week of the journey and the weather was holding up well.
Dayah skipped beside Aya humming a little tune to herself.
“Are you doing alright?”
“I am doing fine.”
“When your little sister gets tired, she can ride one of the animals for a little bit okay.”
Ayah smiled at the aged woman who showed concern. Her grayed hair peeping from beneath a brown cloth that in a knot atop her head. The lines in her face were as kind as her words.
They had now been walking now for several hours. The red sun would remain in the skies for seventeen hours. The older folks wanted to take advantage of the light before stopping to rest. The animals were used to walking for miles without a single drink of water.
The landscape was all dark red dirt, hard and impenetrable. A few mangled stubs and dried sticks once-mighty trunks could be seen at intervals. They were now several miles from where their former homes had been erected with tents and geo-homes.
Aya saw when the signal for the group to stop was given. It was a blue sparkly flare and that started the group to begin to make temporary camp. Aya was starving and thirsty. She moved towards the older lady that had spoken to her before. She was unpacking a cooking bowl and food.
“Can I help?”
“Of course.” Those kind lines smiled again.
They started to portion out grain and beans to cook. People were milling around, offering help, and working together to make camp. She could smell the dried mushroom tea already being made.
Before Aya could help the old lady make fire, the ground came alive suddenly with a great hum and vibration. The animals became frantic; pounding and pawing at the hardened dust. Men shouted and tried to calm them, while Mothers clung to the scared children. The older people knew what this hum hum and buzz meant; the underground people. They were about to attack. There was nowhere to run as they were on a plane without a tree or shrub in sight.
“Grab the little ones! Pull them to the center!”
“Hide the little ones!”
“The Underground People are coming! To your weapons men!”
The scurry became more heightened as the hum hum grew louder and louder. It was as if the ground was about to experience a great storm, a violent eruption. All the young ones were pushed hurriedly towards the center of the group. The pack animals formed another circle layer around them. Dayah clung to Aya, hiding her face in the folds of fabric around her thighs. A mule and her burden locking them in with other children, young mothers, and the elderly. As if by some unforeseen mystic magick, men, as gangly as the gigantic tree spiders, ejected from the ground. They were ashen in the face and teeth like evil sharp needles exposed, sprang high up into the air. They seemed to float, hanging heavy and meaningly, for a few seconds in the air and in no time surrounded the traveling nomads. It was like birds of death waiting for a beast to release its final breath and surrender to its grave. The Underground People made frightening, threatening noises as they waved their arms. Shooing the nomads backward into a tight small circle. Herded in, awaiting their slaughter. The children wailed loudly and the women screamed. The men held out the staffs and pointy spears as they formed a circle around the migrants. Underground People screeched and moved in closer, closer, and closer to the group. No one struck out first. Nerves were stretched thin, no one blinked.
“Stay back you cannibals”
A screech was the response.
“Back away! Leave our children!”
The intense staredown between the opposing sides was broken in an instance when a woman released a blood-curdling scream from within the center of the nomad’s group. An underground man had snuck through one of their vents and was biting at the ankle of a young woman. He edged at her like a mad rabid dog, with his teeth bared. An older woman who was standing right beside her sprung into action and plunged a jagged knife into his back, once, twice, three times, four, five before he laid motionless. Before the dust settled from his fallen body, the Underground People advanced and were greeted by ready spears and staffs. The clash and clang of metal on metal rang out; echoing across the vast barren landscape. The struggle picked up the dry and thirsty dust into the air. Aya struggled to keep up with the action. The battle stretched on and neither side seemed to be making any headway. The Underground People with great ferocity cut down two men of the Nomads, who responded in quick succession with blows of their own, One, Two Three Underground men met the dust. Their leader, noted by the mix of yellow and ashen white on his face, battle scars whip around his back, yelled at his warriors. They spoke in grunts, yelps, and screeches. They ran circles around the nomads, in an effort to create confusion and a break in the ranks of the men who used their bodies as shields. One young man, Aya recognized, Abe, launched himself forward. Carrying his two spears and crouched low, spun around in a wide circle slashing at the ankles of the Underground Men closest to him bringing them down. At the corners of the shield circle, other young nomad men followed suit and quickly brought down Underground Men who then had the throats slashed by the other men who had remained standing straight. In that way, half of the Underground People warriors were down. Their dark blood mixed with the dry cracked dirt. The yellow and ashen face leader screeched; the remaining warriors took that as their cue to launch themselves headlong at the group. The nomads were ready. Without any further loss to their numbers, the nomads halved the remaining Underground People. With fear, the remnants scattered and retreated to their holes. They all stood motionless for a while, too afraid to take a single step.
The bright heat in the sky had begun its slow descent, being replaced by the glowing blood-red moon. The feeling of safety had left the group replaced by a tense fog of unease and fear. The men that had perished in the battle were given a burial. Their graves were marked by pieces of wood with their names carved into them. The children, including Aya and her sister, were fed and put to bed. Aya laid on her make-shift pallet and bundled up coat for her pillow. She fell asleep after a long while. Her young mind was filled with dreams more vivid than ever before. She dreamed of a woman with a bright smile; a smile that reminded her of Dayah. Her skin darkened by the sun, like the other women of their group. They walked together by the banking of a small waterway, collecting berries that grew there. Ayah laughed and pranced by the waterway, the woman telling her to be careful. The woman caught up to her enveloping her with a warm hug.
“I miss you,” she said.