This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Parker Sheaffer, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
The Littlest Heroes
© 2017 Parker Sheaffer
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away....
Many planets orbited many stars, and many moons orbited those planets. All through the universe life on those planets and moons proved not only to be abundant, but to exist in an unending variety of forms. The one thread common to life everywhere was the struggle to survive. Some survive by lying low, others by domination, some are prey and some are predators, but the happiest are those who survive through mutual cooperation as a community.
One moon, known as the Forest Moon of Endor, was home to a diminutive race who proved that courage and love were to be found in all sizes of beings, even the littlest heroes.
Brana padded silently down the forest path, crawling under the trunks of fallen trees that dripped moisture from their mossy coats. At times he entered the dark tunnels of their hollow bodies, eager to emerge once more into the green sunlight at the other end. Stealthily he tried to remain out of sight, out of sound of his prey. The only thing that could give him away was his scent, but he had rubbed himself all over with the leaves of the huncha bush, so now he smelled like the forest. Confident that he would be undetected, Brana parted the leafy branches of small shrub and peered at the creature that grazed in the clearing beyond. It was what he had been stalking, a Mezrul. Its muscular body, covered in green and yellow striped fur, blended in with the forest; a perfect camouflage. The beast took another large mouthful of neugh moss and chewed it, unaware that death was nearby.
Little Brana was half the size of the mezrul, but he was unafraid. As long as he was careful he was not in danger of being gored by the animal's twisted horn that grew from the end of its nose. He raised his atlatl and flung the short spear with all his might. There was a loud roar of terror and a wild thrashing from the clearing. Brana leapt over the shrub to see his prey writhing in its death throes. His projectile had hit it near the heart; a quick, clean death. Now his clan would have food for days, if he could drag the heavy corpse back to the village.
First he retrieved his spear and cleaned it. Then he drew his knife, freshly honed, and began to cut open the mezrul's thick belly flesh to remove the organs. There were none of those that were worth keeping, not even the heart. By removing the head, feet and the organs he had reduced the animal's weight by half, a more manageable burden. He had spied a huncha bush a short distance back so he hacked off several large branches and placed the dead animal upon them and then covered it with the remaining leaves. These would hide the blood scent from any other predators he was likely to come near as he brought home his prize.
Brana was strong, like all of his people. While he lacked the stature to carry the carcass, his strength was sufficient to drag it. The thick branches prevented damage to the meat. Two hours later he arrived home, tired and hungry, and was greeted by his lover, Thausa, and their friends. Everyone was excited to see the mighty hunter return with such a prize. Mezrul meat was delicious and it would be difficult to wait until it was roasted. Fortunately, Thausa had been optimistic and had already prepared their cook fire up on the flet which held their hut.
The village chief, Chirpa, came down from his house, high in the trees, and gave his approval to the kill. Logray the shaman came down and blessed the food in the name of Sreeepio, the golden god that they all worshiped. Since it was Brana's kill, he had charge of dividing it among the villagers, keeping a large share for his family.
He worked quickly, in case he was interrupted by an encroaching predator. It was easier to divide it on the ground than to try and hoist the entire thing up into the trees where they all lived. As each of his neighbors took a portion, they scampered quickly back up the rope ladders to safety. High above, the giant trees were filled with large platforms, called flets, and thatched roofed huts, all connected with rope bridges and ladders. Thausa had built his cook fire on the breastplate of one of the great white giants, the stumtwupas, that had invaded their land and caused so much sorrow a few years earlier. They had at last been vanquished, and while the forest had claimed their remains, the people had scavenged what metal they could. They were a clever people and they found many uses for the strange alloys.
Once the food was cooked, Brana, Thausa, and their child, Antor, sat down to enjoy it. Before taking a bite they first said a quick prayer to show their gratitude.
Thausa said, "We always grateful to our great gold god, Sreeepio, and him friends, Onsowo, Waya, and Skawaka. Them chase away dark ones and give world back to us. Thank you."
"Thank you," said Brana
"Thank you," echoed Antor.
Brana smiled fondly at little Antor. Not only had the child grown stronger since he had taken him into his family, but he was becoming much happier as the bad memories of his late parents grew mistier in his young mind. Brana hoped that someday he would only remember the bright, sunny days with he and Thausa.
Brana and Thausa were both males and yet they were mates. This was common enough in their society and couples like them served a great purpose. Because so many of their people met death each year, there were often children left without parents. Couples like Brana and Thausa were expected to take in children like Antor and raise them. It was not a law or rule, just a mutually agreeable obligation. The two adults loved children and their lives were enriched by the addition of little Antor.
The sky was overcast with thick clouds so as darkness fell in the forest it was very dark indeed. The remains of the many cook fires lit the tree tops with a warm, merry light and eased the gloom. Music and singing could be heard all around as the three sat and listened happily.
"Was scary huntin' the mezrul today?" asked Antor.
"A little scary, but I careful. I sneak quiet. He not hear me, he not see me and he not smell me. He surprised when I take him down with spear. Good shot, too. Right in heart, first time," Brana said proudly.
Thasua smiled lovingly at his mate and said, "Brana great hunter. Maybe best hunter in village. We not hungry when Brana go hunting."
Thausa began to sing a bit of song, softly and without much melody, but Antor liked his voice and hummed along. Brana gently tapped out a rhythm on a drum, one that was made from a piece of the white metal skin of an invader. It was something called a helmet and it made a pretty sound when he hit it with a stick. All around them other villagers made similar music to fill the night air.
Everyone fell silent at the same time when out of the darkness below came a frightening roar. It was followed by another one.
"Big ocelees,"said Brana. "Smell food and want some. Good thing dey can't climb trees. No get up here to eat us. Dey stay on ground and go hungry."
Reassured by his words, Antor began to relax again. Around them the music resumed along with the soft chatter of the neighbors. As if on cue, the clouds above parted and through the thick canopy of leaves they could see the light of the big god in the sky; the huge sky god that they called Endor. The people had no knowledge of planets or moons. To them, the giant orb was a watchful god, while their own world, Teela, which meant Home in their language, was only a smaller, forest moon of Endor.
By Endor's filtered light they could see the creatures that lurked beneath them. Ocelees were a common predator in the forest. They were neither cat nor dog, but a weird mix of the two. Weighing as much as six of the adult villagers, these were dangerous if encountered on the ground. Although they were fast and had sharp teeth, they were also rather stupid and easily fooled. Ocelees were mostly nocturnal. Their large padded paws had only small claws, useful for digging, but not climbing, so scrambling up a tree was the best way to dodge an ocelee.
An hour passed and one by one the neighboring fires began to die out and Brana yawned widely and stretched his arms. "Sleep now," he said, and he, his mate and child retired inside their hut. Brana was proud of his hut and proud of his mate for keeping it clean and nice. They had soft cushions to sit on, a soft rug to walk on and in the corner was a large nest where they all slept, curled up together. Thausa had added new grasses to it and Brana could smell sweet flowers that were tucked into the twigs. Brana slept the sleep of the weary.
Thausa was the first to awaken the next morning. The early sun shone a beam right onto his face so he opened his eyes and stood up without waking the others. He would prepare some fruit and leaves for breakfast, maybe with a bit of leftover mezrul.
A wooden cabinet against the wall held a variety of fruits and nuts, and Thausa replenished their supply almost every day. He enjoyed climbing through the treetops, wearing a pack and filling it with fresh food. Although he was high above the ground, like the rest of his people he had no fear of heights. They were a nimble and strong race and living above the ground was natural to them.
Thausa carried some fruit to a corner of the hut where a basin sat on a wooden frame. Under it was a large ceramic jar filled with fresh water. He dipped water from the jar into the basin and washed his fruit, then his face and hands. He tossed the dirty water over the rail after he placed the food on the low table. Another small dish of meat, cut into cubes, joined it there. To drink he had made a mild beer from nuts and flavored with the flowers of a jubbub tree. When breakfast was ready he woke the others and watched as they slowly roused themselves.
"Sleepy, sleepy, no eat-ee," sang Thausa merrily. The mention of food made Brana and Antor move more quickly. They pulled cushions up to the table and reached for the fruit.
Everyone was silent for a few minutes as they concentrated on their stomachs. Brana spoke first. "What to do today? We need food?"
Thausa said, "Since you bring meat, we good for this days." He held up his two fingers and thumb, indicating three. The people had only two fingers and one thumb on each hand and this lack of digits had prevented them from developing their own mathematics. Other races with ten fingers usually came up with a base ten set of numbers, but six didn't lend itself very well to counting.
"We make new net. This net old, big tear in it. We need sarna vine," said Brana. The vines yielded a strong fiber that the people used to make ropes for their ladders and bridges. Thinner ropes were woven into throwing nets for catching game and also used for many other purposes. The sarna vines climbed the great tree trunks until they reached the farthest limbs. Then they released their hold on the bark of the tree and hung freely in the air. Sometimes the younger children would cut them loose at the base and swing from tree to tree on them.
After they had eaten, Brana descended to the forest floor and cut loose two large vines. Thausa and Antor remained above and pulled the vines up onto their flet for shucking. Rope making was a vital skill among the people and it was important for youngsters like Antor to learn. Thausa showed him how to crush the vine between stones to break apart the fibers. Then they soaked them in water until the plant's glue dissolved and the fibers were clean. The water was later boiled until it thickened and the glue used for other purposes.
Twisting the fibers required two people, one at each end, to twist in opposite directions until the fibers locked against each other. The morning was spent making rope and after a quick lunch that afternoon they began to weave the net. Antor was not very practiced at net making so he asked Thausa if he could go and play. His parent shooed him away with an indulgent smile and Antor scampered across the bridge to see his friends.
Brana watched Antor go and thought of the day when the child's real parents had died. It had been a few years, but like all of the villagers, he remembered clearly the day the giants came. Amazing metal ships fell slowly from the sky and hovered over the tree tops. Brana still could not understand how metal could float in the air. These ships went over the ridge toward a neighboring village and soon huge clouds of smoke could be seen rising from that direction. Brana was one of the brave villagers who went to find out what was happening. Their chief, Chirpa, led them along with Brana's friend, Wicket.
They were shocked when the trees suddenly stopped ahead and they could see that their neighbors were gone. The entire village, trees and all, had been razed. Raw scorched earth remained where once a great arbor had stood. The metal ships now sat on the ground and doors had opened in the sides disgorging machines and strange beings. Later they found that these beings were called 'hoomans'. There were also other cruel beings in white, hard skins and these white ones carried weapons. Not spears or slings, but magic weapons that could destroy just by being pointed at something. Much later they were told that these beings were 'stumtwupas'.
Of the residents of the village, there was no sign. By the devastation that lay before them it was apparent that they were probably all dead. Brana hoped that some had escaped into the forest, but for now there was nothing to be done. Chirpa said that they should return to warn their own people, but Brana and Wicket wanted to stay and look for survivors.
The two of them split up and each went a different direction, hoping to encircle the clearing. Brana had not gone far when he found a dead female, her black fur mostly burned off, leaving red blistered flesh exposed. A whimpering child cowered under a bush. Brana heard the boy's cries and picked him up, whispering comforting words to him.
The boy clung to him with a grip that was strengthened by terror and grief. Brana petted him and rocked him in his arms. He wanted to continue with his search so he carried him while quietly shushing his small cries. He had not gone far when he saw some of the white giants searching the forest ahead, so he turned and silently slipped back among the foliage. When he returned to the village he was happy to find that his friend had also made it back and had two young females in tow. They were older than the boy and they seemed to be in shock as they followed Wicket silently, their eyes wide and staring.
There was no need for discussion about the care of the children. Brana and Thausa were happy to take the boy, and they named him Antor. The females were quickly adopted as well. The Chief had already informed the Elders about what they had seen so Wicket and Brana were called upon to give their testimony.
They had seen enough to tell them that the beings were building something big. It was decided that some of the hunters would go back and watch and search for other survivors. They could report back regularly if there seemed to be any danger of the beings coming to their village.
After that, everyone stayed away from the strangers. All hunting was done in other directions and a watch was always kept in case the white giants came. Although other searches were made, few other survivors were found. The ones who had not been killed immediately had probably fallen prey to the forest animals.
A couple of very nervous years passed during which there were several disappearances of people from the village. Sometimes hoomans would come near but the people chased them away with stones thrown from the tree tops.
Finally one day other hoomans appeared and they fought the white giants, the stumtwupas. Their names would always be remembered among the villagers; Waya, Skawaka, Onsowo, and the gold god Sreeepio. They had another with them who could have been a cousin of theirs except that he was a giant, even bigger than the hoomans. When they asked his name he only answered with a sharp growl. Still, he was a doughty fighter.
The arrival of this group of hoomans signaled the beginning of the great war, where the people led the hoomans in an assault on the invaders. It had been a bloody conflict with much death on both sides but eventually the valor of the people had brought them success. The flying ships were destroyed along with the terrible structures the white giants had built. All of their war machines, the ones that flew and the ones that walked on tall legs, were wrecked and killed. After much celebrating, Waya and her friends left and the people were once again at peace.
The forest quickly reclaimed the desolate areas and the scarred land healed itself. The people benefited from the piles of metal that were left behind. Not being miners, they had a scarcity of metal goods themselves. Now they could craft knives, spear points, cookware and endless other things.
These days they were able to concentrate on domestic chores, like weaving a net. Brana's nimble fingers twisted the fibers around a wooden shuttle which he passed in and out of the other strands. Between them, he and Thausa soon had a large part of the net finished, but their backs began to ache from being hunched over for so long. Brana stood up to stretch and he wondered what Antor was doing, so he took a stroll over the bridge to see. Up ahead he could hear the shrill laughter of children. Drawing closer he saw them chasing each other in a circle around a hut, trying to touch and grab the one in front. Then they took off over another bridge, leaving it bouncing and swaying, and chased around another hut. The villager inside looked out and smiled at their antics. As they passed over yet another bridge a shadow passed overhead. A loud screech echoed through the tree tops and a huge winged animal swooped down and grabbed Antor in its talons. It was a twylex, an animal that was neither bird nor insect, but part of both, with a sharp, toothed beak, leathery wings and a long tail that was tipped with a venomous barb. Twylex, the sky terror of all the people; capable of carrying off children and even small adults and now it had his son. Without thinking, Brana drew his dagger and threw it at the monster. The blade struck it at the base of its wing and stayed there, embedded.
If he had stopped to think, he might have not thrown it. What if he had hit Antor? What if the thing had dropped his son to the ground so far below? Antor would be dead, but now he was going to die anyway. Less than a year before another child had been snatched. Its receding cries could be heard as the claws dug into its flesh. Those cries still haunted Brana.
Now he stood helpless as his boy was stolen from him. He could see the whip like tail curling around and stabbing his little one. Antor stopped struggling and became limp in the beast's talons.
People around him were screaming and crying. Thausa came running to see what the matter was. Brana turned to him, his face suddenly no longer filled with grief, but with rage. With a quick explanation to his mate he said, "I go get Antor. Twylex can no have him. I bring him back."
Brana ran home to get his spear and another knife. Thausa followed him and said, "I go, too." Thausa took the large knife that he used to chop meat and tucked it into his belt. He then quickly gathered up a good length of the new rope which he coiled and hung from his shoulder. Thausa kept a stout staff in the corner by the door. It was something that he rarely used, an heirloom passed down from his father. Now he saw a good use for it and took it in hand.
Brana looked at him for a moment and saw the seriousness in his eyes. Thausa, his kind and gentle lover, now looked grim and dangerous. He nodded and the two set off to rescue their son. They would not let themselves think that he might be dead. They believed that Antor was alive and they were going to save him, no matter what got in their way.
They could not see the twylex through the leafy canopy above, but Brana knew the direction it had been flying. There was a range of low mountains with craggy cliffs a day's march ahead. Brana had seen those creatures flying near there and his father had told him that they made their nests among the cliffs.
Their pace was brisk but silent as they passed through the tall ferns and mossy trunks. There was a game trail that led in the general direction that they needed so they followed it. Brana was alert for predators, using his eyes, ears and nose to locate any signs of danger. Not only must he find and keep Antor safe, but now he also had to protect Thausa.
After an hour's hike the trail turned and no longer led toward the mountains so the two hunters were forced to leave it and make their way through the rough forest. It was slower going and Brana silently cursed every stone and fallen tree that hindered their progress. Every obstacle lessened their chance to find Antor safe.
Soon they came to a stream that was too wide and swift to cross, so they were forced to turn upstream and look for a place to ford. They soon found it, a fallen tree that traversed the entire width. The trunk was only slightly mossy, but slippery none the less, so they had to proceed slowly and carefully. Thausa almost dropped his staff and for a moment he teetered dangerously above the roaring water. Then he found his balance and made it across. He was grateful that Brana was in front and had not seen his misstep.
Once across they quickened their steps to make up for lost time. Thausa could have used his big knife to hack through some of the brush but that would have made noise and brought unwanted attention to them so they simply pushed their way through.
The flying twylex had not escaped unscathed with it prize. Brana's dagger had punctured a vein that supplied blood to its wing. The wound caused it a lot of pain and reflexively it had lashed out at the child, stabbing it with its venomous barb. The toxin had caused the prey to go unconscious, ceasing its struggles so that flying became easier. Soon the foul creature saw its rocky home in the distance. Knowing that its young nestlings were hungry and waiting for their meal, the twylex tried to fly faster, but the pain in its wing was growing worse. The loss of blood was beginning to weaken the creature and the more it strove to fly quickly the more it slowed down until at last it began to fly lower. With its wings flapping as hard as it could manage, it still sank toward the ground, muscles weakening and its vision going black. Twenty feet from the ground it finally succumbed to its injury and fell solidly onto a rocky clearing below. Somehow it rolled as it fell and little Antor was saved from being crushed by landing on top of the great raptor's body.
Antor was unconscious, but alive. The poison was not designed to kill, but to stun and incapacitate because the prey needed to be delivered alive to the crying young twylex hatchlings. The monster lay dying under him, its body heat, developed to aid in hatching eggs, now kept Antor's fragile little body warm.
He lay in a stupor for more than an hour before he began to regain consciousness. Slowly he moved his head, but a wave of nausea swept over him. He closed his eyes and moaned. A few minutes later he tried moving his arms. They ached badly as he tried to prop himself up. He hurt all over and his vision was blurry. Vertigo caused him to empty his stomach all over the dead twylex. Finally, bit by bit, he eased himself off of the carcass and managed to stand on his wobbly legs.
As his vision cleared a bit he looked around, confused, unsure of what had happened. He could remember being squeezed until he couldn't breathe and then there had been the terrible pain in his lower back. Suddenly he became aware that the pain was still there and he placed his hand on the sore spot. There was a large raised welt under his fur and it felt wet. Antor looked at his hand and saw blood. He began to cry. Sinking to his knees he sat back against the dead predator, laid his head on his arms and sobbed.
He had almost forgotten the horrible fear he had experienced when his mother had carried him from the destruction of their home, her fur burning. She had shielded him and kept him safe long enough to get him into the forest before she finally fell down and died. He had tried to wake her, but it was no use, so he hid under a bush until Brana found him. Brana took care of him, loved him. So did Thausa, and Antor loved them in return. Their life had been a happy one and he was proud of his new parents. Where were they now? Where was he now?
His new perilous situation now brought back the terrible memories that he had tried to put behind him and he found himself frozen with fear. As the confused fog began to clear from his brain a bit he thought, "Antor must be brave. Be brave like Brana. Must be brave."
He realized that he should seek some sort of shelter. He needed to get away from the dead twylex and get up off the ground, so he staggered weakly toward the nearest tree. It was only a few yards ahead, but Antor fell three times to his knees before he reached it and pressed his hands onto the thick bark. Simply touching the great tree brought him some comfort and strength.
His people worshipped the trees, the bringers of life, food, and shelter. There was a deep spiritual connection that they all felt with the giant trees and as Antor pressed his face against the bark he thought that he could hear the voice of the forest urging him to climb.
His four fingers were short, but very strong; strong enough to dig into the bark for a tight grip. Having a small, light body was beneficial now because his weakened arms could more easily support him as he climbed. Despite the terrible pain in his back he used his toes to push and his arms to pull long enough to reach the first branch. There the tree forked and provided a resting place, several yards above. Antor collapsed with relief at having reached safety. He closed his eyes to rest for a minute, but fell into an exhausted sleep, cradled in the embrace of the tree father.
Hours had passed, yet Brana and Thausa could not stop to rest. Their grief and anger drove them on, even though the light was failing. Brana climbed high into a tree to see the forest beyond, to try and make sure that they were still going in the right direction. It was early twilight and already the sky giant, Endor, watched over them and their quest. The multicolored orb filled almost one quarter of the sky. The bottom portion was cut off by distant mountains, but soon it would hover directly over them. Brana thanked the sky god for helping because he knew that its reflected light would aid them through the night.
Descending quickly, he hugged Thausa and pointed the way for them to proceed. They were forced to detour around a thicket of densely leafed bushes when suddenly Thausa stumbled, his foot encountering something soft and yielding. It was an ocelee, lying asleep in its pit.
Ocelees were nocturnal predators and during the day they used their thick claws to dig a shallow hole to curl up in. The earth was cool and bushes provided shade so they could sleep comfortably, unless someone stepped on them.
Brana had not smelled the ocelee because the breeze had been from behind him so he was just as startled as Thausa when the beast sprang up with a roar. Instinctively, Thausa lashed out with his staff and struck it across the skull. The animal backed off for a moment, long enough for them to dash for cover. The trees were farther apart, this near the mountains, so their closest protection was a rotted trunk that had fallen between two large boulders. They dove under it, hoping that the ocelee's bulk would prevent it from reaching them. The enraged beast clawed at them but they shrank farther back away from it. The digging claws went to work at the stony soil as it tried to create a larger opening. Without a word, an angry Thausa pulled his large meat knife from his belt and stabbed one of the paws. That was followed by a scream of rage from the predator and it stopped digging for a minute. Then its other paw took up the excavation and Thausa struck again. This time he severed a toe of the creature. Blood spurted briefly until the wounded ocelee fled in defeat. It had had enough and, stupid as it was, it knew enough to surrender. This prey was not to be had today.
The animal's blood had gotten onto Thausa's fur so Brana emptied his water skin on his mate to clean him. The blood smell would draw other predators so they needed to find more water and a huncha bush.
Thausa was shaking from the encounter and his heart was racing as he put his arms around his mate and hugged him tightly. Brana hugged him back, reassuring him that they were safe and thanking him for driving away the animal.
"Thausa brave, Thausa strong," Brana cooed to reassuringly. "Chase monster away good."
They both calmed down after a couple of minutes and continued on their way. There was a watering hole a few hundred yards ahead so they stopped long enough to wash thoroughly. They couldn't linger because with the oncoming darkness the predators would be coming to drink.
It wasn't long before Brana spotted a small huncha bush and they rubbed themselves with the astringent leaves, disguising their own body odors. Their brush with death, along with their anxiety for the safety of their child, combined with their physical exertion and made them both weary, yet they had no intention of stopping, not while they could still walk or crawl.
Around them the leaves rustled as small creatures left their homes and emerged to feed and mate. Teela teemed with myriad lifeforms, some large, like ocelees, and some very small, smaller than the people. Most of them depended on the forest for their homes and food and the smallest lived either high in the trees or under their roots.
Tonight they were making a noisy symphony as they went about their business. Brana didn't mind the racket. He knew from experience that if any predator came near them the noise would cease instantly. As long as there was noise, they were safe.
They later came to another obstacle, a wide chasm that fell into a deep crevasse. They were stopped at last for they could see no way across it. The trees had become sparse as they approached the mountain and now the ground was mostly rock so there was little hope of finding a fallen tree to cross on, as they had with the stream. Peering over the side of the crevasse they could not see the bottom. Its depth was lost in darkness and when Brana dropped a stone in, there was no sound to be heard of it striking.
Frustrated, the pair sat for a moment trying to think of what to do next. They were beginning to despair of ever succeeding, of ever finding Antor. With their arms around each other they took the opportunity to rest for a few minutes. They had been pushing hard and they still had a long way to go.
Then, in the distance, Brana's keen ears picked up a sound. It was the roaring of an ocelee. Listening, he heard that there were more voices, more than one ocelee growling. Then he heard the sharper cries of some druknas, scavengers that were half the size of ocelees but even more vicious and cunning. The cries were coming from across the chasm and up to their right.
"We see what they doing," said Brana simply.
Weary Thausa nodded and they set off along the edge of the cliff. The sounds grew louder and when they climbed atop a large boulder their hearts were gladdened to see a bridge on the other side. It looked ancient and not too safe but they jumped down and ran to look at it more closely. Someone had constructed it of rope and tree limbs at a point where the gap was quite a bit narrower. Brana had no idea how old it might be or if it would bear their weight, but he was determined to find out. The ropes which bore most of the weight were quite thick, while the ropes that tied the branches to the supports were much thinner. The branches were closely packed together, forming a somewhat solid looking surface, but a few weeds were sprouting at each end of the bridge, indicating that it was seldom used. There were no ropes to hold onto as one crossed the span. Brana and Thausa were agile enough to not need handholds.
"I try first," said Brana, indicating for Thausa to wait. He wanted to make certain that it would hold his weight before letting his mate cross over.
"Wait, tie this around your middle," said Thausa, holding out the new rope that they had made that morning. It was long enough to reach across so Brana tied one end around his waist.
"Tie that end on you," Brana said. Thausa saw the sense in that. If the bridge collapsed under either of them then the other could act as an anchor, preventing them from dropping to their death.
Carefully Brana tested the wooden surface. Staying in the center he eased his weight onto it, first with one foot and then the other. He breathed a sigh when it held. One cautious step followed another until he made it across. It had taken twenty steps and while the bridge squeaked and wobbled, it held. Brana held his breath while Thausa crossed. They hugged each other with relief and Brana patted his mate on the back.
Coiling the rope, they continued walking in the direction of the animal roars. There were no trees in the rocky clearing ahead so the light from Endor above illuminated the scene. Three ocelees were feeding on the carcass of something large, while several druknas hovered around them, yipping out their frustration and darting in to snatch a bit of the prize. At first Brana couldn't make out what sort of dead beast it was, but then he saw a wing being gnawed in the mouth of an Ocelee. He cried in despair as he realized that it was the body of the twylex.
His cry was not heard by the feeding predators. He looked at Thausa and saw that he was crying too. They slipped down behind a pile of boulders and sat in shock. They had not been prepared at all for the sight of the dead twylex. Any hope they had for finding their child alive was suddenly snuffed out. Their exhaustion came upon them all at once and they knew they would not make it back to the village that night. They had to find a place to sleep so they could continue in the morning.
Scaling a suitable tree, they hastily arranged some branches for a crude nest and curled up in each other's arms.
Thausa whispered, "Maybe not same twylex. Maybe another one."
Brana whispered back, "We see in the morning. We can no help Antor now." Sick at heart, neither of them slept very well.
Little Antor had awakened from his own nap while it was still daytime. Aching and sore, especially from his back wound, he was terribly thirsty. Seeing no dangerous animals around, he climbed down from his perch and went in search of water. Staying as far as he could from the dead twylex he did as Brana had taught him, he sniffed the air hoping for the scent of water. He listened carefully for the sound of a stream. A faint aroma touched his nose for just a moment, carried on a soft breeze. The smell of water. Antor turned toward the breeze and strode off bravely into the forest, while trying to remain aware of which tree was closest, just in case he needed one.
After a few minutes he heard the faint sound of water trickling, falling into water. It was a small stream running through the mossy rocks, pouring into a shallow pool. The stream was clear and cold and Antor waded into it and sat down, letting the coolness bring relief to his wound. The laceration no longer bled but it was far from being healed. His head felt clearer and the water helped ease the aches in his body. Drinking his fill, Antor stood and shook some of the water off his body. He was hungry, scared and lost but mostly, at that moment, he was hungry, so he looked for food. As he wandered aimlessly through the forest he looked for any fruit or nut source that would suffice, and he was in luck. Not far off was a gramina tree, a tree the bore a sweet fruit and whose seed was also edible. The tree's bark was smooth, almost too smooth to climb, but Antor was light and his fingers strong. He dug into the bark and managed to get up to one of the lower limbs. There he plucked a plump orb, light brown and fuzzy, and bit through the tough skin. The soft flesh sprayed his mouth with a delicious juice as he quickly peeled the rind with his teeth.
Because he was really hungry each bite tasted marvelous and he soon was left with the fat seed. It was actually more like a nut and Antor popped the entire thing in his mouth and chewed it. The texture was a bit crunchy and the saltiness was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the fruit. He helped himself to another, and another. Once his appetite was sated he tried to think of what he should do next. His choices were limited, he could stay put in the unlikely hope that someone would look for him, he could try and find his way home by himself, or he could just stay in this gramina tree until he died. Of the three, trying to find his way home seemed the most reasonable. The problem there was that he did not know the way home. Climbing as far as he could into the upper branches he saw that there were rock cliffs and mountains to the west. They did not look at all familiar and Antor thought that it made sense that home must lay somewhere in the opposite direction. After all, the twylex probably flew in a straight line. He had no idea of how far he had been carried and so the journey home could take hours or days.
He would need food so he took off his only garment, a hood that covered his head and shoulders, and filled it with as much fruit as he could manage. Then he dropped it onto a nearby bush, hoping that the fruit didn't get too bruised. He climbed down, collected his provisions, and bravely set off into the forest.
By the gray-green light of morning Thausa began to awaken. His back ached from sleeping on a lumpy branch. The marauding animals had abandoned their late night feast and departed. The forest was silent except for Brana's gentle snoring. Thausa gently nudged him awake and together they descended to see if there was any need to continue their search.
Cautiously approaching the scant remains of the twylex they saw that there was no hope for footprints. The ground was a mass of animal paw prints mixed with blood and gore. As they circled the bones they examined the area carefully for any clue about the fate of their son.
Thausa said, "No fur, no cloth, maybe Antor not eaten. Maybe he get away. What made twylex fall?"
With a small cry of triumph, Brana pointed to a blood covered knife lying nearby. It was the dagger he had thrown in his haste when Antor was carried off. The blade had done its job, if not as quickly as Brana had wished. He picked it up and wiped it somewhat clean in a patch of dewy grass before tucking it into his belt. He continued to look at the earth as he circled in an outward spiral. To his relief he found no drag marks.
"If Antor live through fall, he walk away. They not get him. I feel Antor is alive, but I don't know where. There are no tracks here," he said.
"Then we find him. We find him. Which way do we go, Brana?"
"When we go up tree last night I smell water. Over that way. Can't smell now because of so much blood here. Let's hope that Antor head for water."
Both of them felt a little better now that they had some hope that the boy was alive. Thausa's faith in Brana's abilities was strong, and he knew that if anyone could find Antor, it was his mate. They headed for the water and as they grew nearer they could hear that it was a stream of some sort. Clear water flowed down from the mountains and cascaded over large boulders, forming pools and runnels. It was not a large stream, but there were small creatures swimming in it. If they dared build a fire they could have had a good breakfast of them, if they only had a pot, that is. But neither of them thought of their stomachs at that point. They had more important things to think about. After drinking a bit of water, Brana led the way downstream. It was there, in a bit of mud that he spotted a small footprint.
Looking at Thausa, he said excitedly, "Look, look. It's Antor's foot. He was here. Antor's alive,Thausa. He's alive!"
They hugged each other and cried with relief, reassured with the knowledge that they were close to their boy at last.
Now that he had a starting point Brana bent low to the ground and searched it carefully for more indications of Antor's trail. He found broken twigs, bent grasses, and impressions in soft areas of dirt left by small feet. Thausa kept watch around them for danger while Brana concentrated on following their cub. He led them into the trees and before long they found a bush that had several bruised gramina fruits lying around it and several of its branches were broken.
"Antor find breakfast," Brana laughed happily. His boy had found water and food, so Brana's lessons had not been in vain. He felt proud. Moving more quickly now he followed small signs that most others would have missed. Some of the signs looked quite fresh and Brana knew that they were getting closer. He wanted to call out to his son, but he feared that his noise would draw predators. He hated to endanger Antor and yet he didn't want to pass him without knowing it.
"Thausa, call him. Call and see if Antor hear you. I watch for beasts," Brana said.
Antor was fascinated by the unknown forest around him. There were trees of a type that he didn't recognize and other plants that he didn't know about, like the red moss dotted with blue stars that hung here and there from low limbs. Small animals scurried through the underbrush and he heard odd calls that made him nervous.
There was a huge, grey rock up ahead that had a very unusual shape to it. Shrubs and small trees grew in the crevices and much of it was clad in a thick blanket of moss. He approached it curiously and upon touching it he realized that it was not stone, but metal. He had never seen that much metal in one place before so he climbed up on it and looked it over. He was climbing a great span of metal, long and narrow, with round pieces attached that looked like straight tree limbs. Standing on what appeared to be three huge boxes connected together; he could see that there were four of the spans like the one he climbed. They looked like legs because at the end of each was a wide, round foot.
If this was a metal animal, it was far greater than any animal that Antor had ever heard of, and if it had been an animal then its head was missing. There was only a twisted pile of debris at the end of a metal 'neck' and lots of metal rope hanging out of it.
Antor had vague memories, fleeting and distant, of great metal beasts marching through the forest, pushing down entire trees and crushing them under their round feet. They made a horrible noise and streaks of fire shot from their mouths. His mother carried him into the forest. Antor cried for a moment as he remembered.
Resuming his exploration he saw that a large hole and several smaller holes punctured the side of the box so Antor knelt down and looked inside it. Instead of guts, he saw a big room, almost empty except for strange chairs and other things that were beyond his ability to describe. Light from the openings in the skin formed beams that lit the interior dimly, but it was enough to see by.
Antor thought about climbing in and exploring, but at that moment he thought he heard something. Holding his breath and keeping perfectly still, he listened. There it was, in the distance, someone calling his name.
Antor's heart raced faster than his little legs as he ran down the metal leg and leapt onto the ground. Disregarding the brush that slapped his face, he sped toward the sound.
"Thausa, Brana, here, here I am. Thausa, Brana, I'm here...," he cried.
"Antor, Antor, Antor," Thausa called loudly, his hands cupped around his mouth. They listened. Nothing.
Again he cried, "Antor, Antor, Antor."
They continued this for a half hour when finally they heard faintly, "Thausa, Thausa."
Running toward the voice they shrieked with joy as they saw their son, alive and well, running toward them. The family threw their arms around each other and danced with laughter and tears at being reunited at last. They all three tried talking at the same time.
"How did you not get hurt when twylex fall?" asked Brana.
"Are you hurt? We was scared for you, my Antor," said Thausa.
"How did you find me? How did you know? I so happy now," beamed Antor, wiping his tears with his hand.
Finally they were able to answer each other's questions. Thausa took a look at Antor's wounded back and said, "We take care of that. We need panthia weed and water. I make paste, you heal fast."
Brana showed Antor the dagger that had finally felled the twylex and told him how he had thrown it and thought he had missed.
Thausa proclaimed that Brana was the best hunter and tracker ever in their village. "He follow signs right to you," Thausa said proudly.
"Hush, be quiet," Brana urged them suddenly. "Listen."
In the distance they could hear a roar. It was followed by another roar from a different direction.
"They hear us calling you," said Brana. "They come now. Find tree and hide."
"Wait," said Antor. "Here is metal box. We can hide inside. I show you where."
Scampering back up onto the hard, gray leg he led his parents to the opening. After a quick look inside, Brana dropped down into it and stood on the back of one of the large chairs. He helped Thausa and Antor in and found a safe place for them to stand.
From the outside came sounds of claws on metal and snarling roars of hunger as huge beasts climbed the derelict AT-AT, following the scent of delicious prey. Antor shivered in fear; what he had first considered a refuge now seemed more like a trap. A shadow blocked the light from the opening they had climbed through and the three of them shrank back and held their breath. A large clawed paw, more like a hand than a paw, reached in and swatted unseeingly at the air above them.
Brana whispered, "Kapokla!"
The fear in his voice did nothing to ease Antor's beating heart. "What is kapokla?" he asked.
"Kapokla bigger than ocelee, more dangerous, can climb, can dig, can tear. Sounds like many kapokla. Maybe whole pod," Brana said. "Good thing Antor find this place. Kapokla can't reach us here."
He rubbed Antor's head and the boy grinned up at him, grateful for the praise.
Thausa asked, "What we do now?"
"We wait. Kapokla get tired and go away soon. Then we go home," Brana said, although Thausa heard a hint of uncertainty in his mate's voice.
They found a comfortable place to wait on the farthest wall. The seats that once held stumtwupas were intact and covered with a thin layer of dust but the cushions were still soft. Needing the reassurance of each other's touch, they all shared a chair with Antor sitting on Thausa's lap.
Still tired from the previous day's adventures, they tried to nap but the noise outside was too great. They sat quietly, hoping that the animals would soon leave them alone. Thausa's stomach began to grumble and Antor giggled because his head was lying on Thausa's belly. Then Thausa began to laugh, and even Brana found himself laughing with them. Their nerves were frayed and now it felt good to laugh and be a little silly. After all, they were a naturally mirthful people.
Antor asked, "Thausa hungry?"
Thausa said, "Yes, but no food. May have to eat you if Thausa get hungry enough."
They laughed again, but Antor jumped up and scampered off to retrieve his hastily made sack that still held a few gramina fruits. He shared them with his parents.
"Antor now take care of Brana instead of Brana take care of Antor," Brana said and hugged the little boy close. The food took the edge off their hunger, but it wouldn't hold them for long. Eventually they would have to leave their refuge. They had no idea when that would be.
Hours passed, and while the kapoklas had tired of trying to claw their way in, they had not abandoned the hope of a meal so some stood sentry outside. Brana knew it was too dangerous to poke his head out to try and see just what the situation was. He was growing tired of hiding though and wanted to get his family home.
Thausa and Antor had drifted off in sleep now that the animals had quieted down so Brana slipped off to search around inside the great machine for anything that might be used as a weapon. There were many strange and interesting things to see and Brana had no idea what any of them were. Any of them could be dangerous so Brana touched few of them. Then he lifted the door of a cabinet and found things inside that looked familiar. They were the weapons that the white giants, the stumtwupas, carried and there were several sizes of them. He didn't know what they were called but they had magic fire that would come from the small end. He cautiously touched one of the smallest, half expecting it to go off, and when nothing happened he picked it up.
While a stumtwupa could carry the device in one hand it was large enough that Brana needed both hands to hold it. Moving away from his loved ones he made his way into the rear of the room and, making sure to keep the small end pointed toward the wall, he began to examine it, hoping to discover just how it worked. It didn't take long for him to press a certain movable part and the resulting explosion caused him to drop the device in shock. A beam of energy had erupted from the end and had burned a hole in the metal wall. Sunlight now shown through it and motes of dust drifted through the light.
He stared in wonder at the result of his test and when he heard a sound behind him he turned to see Thausa and Antor looking at him with wide eyed terror.
"Brana, what did you do?" asked Thausa.
Brana picked up the weapon and said, "I figure out how to use weapon now. Now we can kill kapokla and go home."
Thausa said, "Maybe we should wait until morning. Night will be here soon and maybe by morning, kapokla will be gone. Come rest and wait with us. Be patient."
Brana saw the sense in his mate's words and carefully carried the weapon back to their makeshift nest where he showed it to Thausa and Antor.
Antor wanted to touch it, but Brana's stern admonition made him not ask twice. Brana placed it out of Antor's reach, in a safe spot and then settled down to relax and to stop his hands from shaking.
Thausa said, "Brana, Antor, let's tell stories to make us happy until we can sleep. We will make tomorrow come more quickly."
So they took turns, Thausa and Brana telling Antor things about their own childhoods, and Antor telling them things that he had done with his friends in the village. Antor's stories always had him being the hero and his friends grateful for his wisdom and bravery. His parents loved their boy and responded with appropriate gasps and chuckles during his telling.
Antor loved hearing from them about the past and how the world had been before the war. None of them wanted to talk about the war, though. There were few good stories then.
When the stories were over, silence fell inside and outside. Antor watched the beams of light that lanced down through the holes above them and saw that they were moving slowly, changing their angle, as the sun sank toward the horizon. His eyes grew heavy and despite the hunger and thirst that nagged at him, he soon slept.
When morning came Brana was the first to stir. His sleep had been restless, haunted by anxiety filled dreams of unseen danger. Glad to be awake, he got up and drew close to the jagged hole that they had entered through. First he listened for sounds of movement. Hearing none, he slowly poked his head out just far enough to see if any predators remained. He saw two curled up together farther down the metal leg, but as he turned his head a bit he saw that there was another kapokla only a few feet away. This one was looking at him through half open eyes. Suddenly it lunged at him with a sweeping paw and nearly caught him with a long, dagger like claw. Brana let go of the lip and dropped back down out of reach. It had been a very close call.
Deciding to make a move before other animals showed up he woke Thausa and Antor.
"Get ready," he told them. "We will go in a few minutes. We need to get home." Taking the alien weapon in his hand he reacquainted himself with its operation and motioned for the others to follow.
"Thausa," he said, "Use your staff to bang on metal over there. Kapokla watches this hole and I want him to look away. Go there and bang real loud, many times."
Thausa did as he was told and a moment later he made a terrific ruckus with his staff. The malevolent sentry was distracted and turned toward the noise. Quickly, Brana raised his weapon and fired it at the kapokla's back. The result was instantaneous and the thing fell dead, blown off its perch by the force of the blast. Its horrible death squall rang through the forest and the other two waiting beasts came bounding up toward Brana. He wasted no time in killing them, as he had their comrade.
With the way clear and no other animals coming, he urged Thausa and Antor to follow him back down. Swiftly they raced through the trees, eager to leave the beasts behind. Antor began to slow down after nearly a league, but Brana and Thausa still had their full strength and so they took turns carrying the youngster.
Brana kept the new weapon ready in case they encountered trouble. He was both amazed and frightened at the power it contained. Remembering the direction he and Thausa had come from the village he knew that if they now went south they would come across familiar territory and the way home.
It was a few more leagues before Brana recognized an area and told Thausa to stop and rest.
"We are almost home. Won't be long now, so we can slow down. I know where water and food are so let's go that way," he said, pointing to the right.
As he said, a few hundred yards away was a small waterfall and some berries. They sat down on the moss and refreshed themselves. Antor played beside the stream, picking up small stones and trying to juggle them while his parents watched in amusement.
Suddenly, on the rock above them a drukna snarled and crouched to leap at Antor. Before Brana could move and reach for his weapons, Antor hurled a stone with speed and accuracy that surprised his parents. The stone struck the scavenger in the face and caused it to snarl. Another stone immediately followed the first and then two more. The drukna fled, leaping off the rock and dashing into the forest.
Brana and Thausa made a great fuss over their son, praising his skill and bravery. Antor laughed with joy and pride. He would have a great story to tell his friends.
The sun was setting as they approached their village. No one expected to see them ever again so the joy of their return was made even greater when it was known that they had successfully rescued their son. There was cheering and songs and music from every tree as the news spread.
Chief Chirpa, the shaman Logray, and Brana's friend Wicket all came and congratulated them. A feast was hastily thrown together, which wasn't too difficult since everyone was in the middle of preparing dinner anyway.
The story was told for many days and for many years after that of the three heroes and their return from death; of the mighty Brana, the valiant Thausa, and the heroic Antor.