Crossing Svara by Sme

Crossing Svara
Sme

Svara is a fairly small planet covered almost entirely by a vast grassland. Enormous rivers criss cross it’s surface, but most are dry for nearly half the year. The wet and dry seasons rotate with the planet, causing temporary seas in a few locations. The only permanent oceans are situated at the poles.

Large herds of various species roam all around the grasslands, most moving with the rains. The apex predator, called Jiir, is much like a hyena in appearance, and there are very few other large predators around.

Throughout the planet are enormous trees, generally avoided by the great herds and jiir. Over most of the planet, the trees are very few and far between. Just one area exists where the trees create a true forest.

These trees are also the most intelligent beings on the planet. The branches arch, first up towards the sky, then outward, and finally reaching all the way back to the ground in mature trees. Dense foliage covers the entire outside, but the inside remains fairly open. The trees cultivate an entire ecosystem within, and they are wholly dependent on it to survive.

The trees can speak amongst themselves through scent, carried around the planet on the wind. Messages may take some time to travel all around to every tree, but the trees live so long that they feel the conversations carry fairly quickly.

Among the branches that arch down to the ground are smaller, whip-like, appendages which are the only part of the tree that the tree can move quickly. It is used as defense to keep unwanted creatures away. Over long periods of time, the trees can consciously grow in the direction they desire, but it is not true movement.

The trees large inner space is quite open, with sunlight filtering down occasionally. This space is filled with a massive variety of plants, animals, and fungi. A good portion of the plant life is parasitic in nature, taking nutrients directly from the tree itself. Then the animals feed on the plants and their wastes feed the tree in turn.

Of all the creatures within the tree, just one is able to communicate with the tree. They are lemur-like, with fur in shades of brown, called the minns. These minns are quite small, but are the largest animal living within the trees. The trees are heavily involved with the lives of the minns and thus typically know them on an individual basis. This is important because it is the minns themselves that can help cultivate a new tree.

There are enormous bird-like reptiles that eat the fruit of the trees and spread the seeds. The trees themselves can even influence which direction their seeds are taken by subliminally passing the desire to go a particular way. They never want them to go too far into the unknown as it is imperative that a minn can travel in between the trees when needed.

The minns do travel by choice to help populate new trees or add variety to the gene pools of other trees’ ecosystems. They pack along lots of seeds, spores, eggs, and sometimes even smaller animals when they migrate to a new tree.

A young tree, once sprouted, can survive a number of years alone, but must eventually start it’s own ecosystem. Trees can die young if the minns do not reach them. The trees communicate amongst themselves to make sure minns get sent to the young trees as soon as they are established enough to support minns. But young trees have died in the past, and it’s something that haunts the memories of a lot of older trees.

Here begins the story.

A mother tree named Sen was conversing the minns residing within her embrace.

“Little minns,” came the sound, like the gentlest breeze through the leaves. Every minn was suddenly alert. Most moved to a small grouping on the ground, but a few remained perched in branches. As quiet settled over all, Sen continued her peaceful rustling.

“New life has begun. A young tree has established itself and is waiting nearby, eagerly, for the arrival of minns. I must select two of you to travel across the great savannah to aid its growth and become its new companions.”

All minns on the ground turned their heads upwards, for they all knew precisely who wished to go most. A strong pair of minns named Rii (the male) and Suna (the female) puffed out their fur in excitement.

“Oh Sen,” Rii seemed to rumble, “We wish to go!”

Suna let out a gentle trilling noise in agreement.

Sen had been needing to gather up a willing pair to send out to the young tree, but this wasn’t what she wished. This pair had a young baby and she thought perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to send them out. Still, she knew the parents well and it felt nearly inevitable. They were always the adventurous sort, and not very many minns were. They’d been wanting to explore beyond the tree since they were young and she’d had quite a time getting them to not wander out.

There was an almost silent sigh in the branches as Sen agreed, “Yes, you are unparalleled in your enthusiasm to travel. May it serve you well.”

Despite the need for minns to start for the new tree, Sen held off for a few months. Small hopes that another tree would decide to send out a pair, but at least the extra couple months allowed the baby minn, named Sari, to grow strong enough for travel. Of course they would go, they were, after all, the closest to the new tree.

In the days leading up to their departure, Sen assisted Suna and Rii in collecting all the seeds, spores, and eggs they’d need from other inhabitants. A few of the most parasitic plants were avoided, those could be introduced another time. The young tree didn’t need to be overwhelmed. The two minn adults were able to carry all they needed, plus some extra seeds and fruit for eating, as the journey would take close to three days with such a young minn as Sari tagging along.

The trio left at the setting of the sun, as the minns would need a slower adjustment to the light of the outside world. Luckily, most of the creatures in the savannah were diurnal, especially the jiir. The first night was fairly uneventful, clear skies meant Sari spent most of her time marvelling at the stars as they walked.

Rii felt her wonderment and asked, “Does it remind you of the light twinkling through the leaves of Sen?”

“It is pretty like that, but different. Sen’s leaves make lovely sounds.”

“The stars can sing too, you know,” Rii said with a wink.

“They can?” Sari gasped.

Rii chuckled, “Well I haven’t heard it myself, but one time, long ago, Sen told me the trees would sometimes speak of the songs the stars would sing at night. I thought maybe it was like a story, meant to help all the trees rest. But perhaps we just can’t hear it as they do.”

Sari continued absorbing the beauty of the night as they travelled under the vast sky. She started to feel as though those twinkling stars were stirring songs in her heart.

As the sun began to rise, great streaks of color spread out like they had never seen before. Strange animals they could not see through the grass began to stir for the day. Odd sounds and calls burst forth with the sun. The minn family found a small shrub to rest beneath. Though not near as comforting as their tree, it felt good to be beneath something for a time.

Sari and Suna slept for a short time but were awoken by Rii. A large animal herd was moving fairly close by and he wasn’t sure what to make of it. Though they knew most animals were completely harmless, they decided it was best to move along so they didn’t get trampled.

The air was quite hot and dry, but they could see the large water hole ahead. Sen had explained they would need to follow it around to the opposite shore, and from there they should see their new tree. Some larger shrubs grew near the water and they felt safe resting again near the water’s edge.

But their movements near the water hole did not go unnoticed. A small band of three jiir spotted them and crept over for a closer look. One jiir was quite young and stayed back a ways to watch. The other two got quite close before Suna spotted them and screamed a warning. She grabbed Sari and ran back away from the jiir, but Rii was not behind them. Suna ran behind a rock, setting Sari down and desperately glancing back. They were not being followed, but then she heard her mate shriek. With panicked eyes she turned to Sari, telling her to run back to Sen, then pushed her towards the tree.

Suna took off and Sari hesitated briefly, but the sounds she heard down the hill scared her so she bolted.

Though they had travelled far already, their home tree was still easy to spot on the hillside. Sari ran on and on until she couldn’t go any further. She collapsed within a small fuzzy plant and slept.

When she finally began to stir, the stars were twinkling in the sky once again. Sari felt happy to see the stars, until she remember what happened. She sat up quickly, looking around in a panic. But the night was still and quiet. Sari was alone. She called out tentatively but her own voice in the silence unnerved her. She crawled out of the plant, which had a strange sweet scent; almost overpowering.

For a few frightened moments, Sari did not know what to do. She gazed up and there, not too far, was Sen. Still imagining lurking jiir in her mind, she ran for the tree.

When Sari arrived, Sen scooped her up quickly with a whip branch and placed her far up in a nook. No need to panic everyone so suddenly. The tree felt immense sadness. Although the trees could not communicate beyond each other and the minns, they could still interpret much of what went on in the world by the scents that travelled on the wind. Sen has sensed that sharp smell of death from two of her own. But she had lost Sari’s scent and was relieved at her return.

Sari curled up tight in the little nook, covering her face with her fluffy tail. Eventually her heart began to settle and she sensed something new in the air, and peered out from under her tail. Nothing seemed different. After she had burrowed back under her tail and started to relax towards sleep, she could sense it again. A scent in the air like a distant rain. Sari knew that the trees communicated by scent, but it was not a language the minns had ever understood. This scent, though, seemed to carry with it a sense of loss. Sari gave a deep sigh. She definitely understood it, Sen was projecting her sorrows into the still night air. A strange sense of comfort passed over Sari, and she breathed the scent deeply until she fell asleep.

Sari stayed hidden in her nook for days, too scared to leave. Sen made what soothing music she could in the rustle of leaves and gently creaking branches.

“Will you move back down to stay with the other minns?” Sen asked one day, in a whispering of leaves. “It does you no good to dwell up here alone.”

Sari peered out of her nook and down to the spaces far below. A tiny shudder passed through her and she wept, “Mother Sen I cannot. I do not want to see the questions in their faces, or worse, be asked them. Besides, I am not alone. I have you.”

A mild hum seemed to emanate from the branches, “Yes, my little one, you always do. Still, you need your kind too. Your friend, Taun, misses you. His parents are more than happy to have you stay with them.”

Most of Sari’s early life had been spent in her nest home, with a few trips to the tree top, where her parents enjoyed speaking with Sen. In the last week of their life together, Sari had began to venture out of the nest on her own. It was then that she had met Taun, just a few weeks older than her. He wasn’t nearly as inquisitive as she was, but he had liked following her as she explored their world in the tree. He was very sad to see her go and would surely love to have her back.

Sari dipped her head for a few seconds, “Ok…” her voice quavered, “but Mother Sen, can I stay up here until the sun rises? I want to come up and see the stars again.”

“Of course,” a gentle creak passed through a branch nearby as Sari clambered up to the top.

When Sari popped out her head above the leaf canopy, Sen reached a whip branch up, curling it around into a seat and pushed Sari up the rest of the way. Sari settled onto the branch, curling her tail around her feet to keep warm.

Gazing up at the sky she felt tiny indeed. The black expanse was dotted with light. Deep purples and blues swirled around making it feel less barren. It was so still and utterly silent. Sari tilted her head to the side, as if listening.

“My father said the stars could sing, while we were walking… out there…” Sari choked a little on her thoughts.

A low vibration seemed to issue from Sen’s branches, almost like amusement.

“They do,” Sen rumbled, “But it’s not something the ears of a minn can hear.”

“But you can’t hear at all, Sen, how do you know they sing?”

“We can feel their singing, like the faintest vibration passing through the universe. We can understand their thoughts and feelings, much as you can understand me.”

Sari puzzled over this for a few moments. A light scent drifted in the air, similar to before, like a far off rain. But with a little something else mixed in, the slightest tinge of sweetness.

“The star songs make you sad?” Sari wondered aloud.

For the briefest second Sen seemed to cease all movement. Not single vibration of leaf or branch. Then, just as quickly, the slight humming returned.

“Sad yes, and happy too. A whole mix of emotions, but the sadness strikes most true now. The loss of your parents saddens us all.”

Silence wavered uncontested for a few moments as Sari tried to feel for those faint vibrations from the stars. A faint light had begun glowing at the edges of the night sky. “What makes the stars sad?” she finally whispered.

A gentle waving through the leaves and Sen replied, “Life, or more the lack of it. Most stars of the universe can claim planets with life. All kinds of life beyond our imaginings. The sadness is often projected by those lonely stars with nothing. Empty planets, barren asteroids, soulless moons.”

Sari pondered this for a bit, then realized something important, “Is that how the young tree feels? Alone and sad?”

A few leaves seemed to swirl gently in circles, Sari watched them sleepily. Sen finally replied, “Yes, my little one.”

As the sky began to turn a light pink, Sen convinced Sari to climb down below to Taun’s nest. When Sari reached the entrance, lined on both sides by roots, a gentle face peered out at her. Taun’s mother said nothing, but gently moved her tail aside. Taun was fast asleep at her side, oblivious to the world. What Sari would give to feel that secure again, but even with Sen’s ever-protective presence she felt she would never feel quite the same again.

Sari snuggled up against Taun’s warmth, and his mother gently draped her tail back around them both.

Sari never felt attachment to her adoptive parents, just gratefulness to have a place to be, but she developed a much stronger friendship with Taun. Taun was always a bit more cautious than Sari, but over time her adventurous spirit carried over to him.

The two would often climb to the very top of their tree to gaze up into the vast skies above. One day, Sari even convinced Taun to sit up there during an unseasonal rainstorm. The roiling clouds fascinated them, cool drops of rain were refreshing, and even the occasional bit of lightning startled them but left them feeling amazed.

Sari always felt in her heart that she must travel someday, carry on what her parents wished to do. She felt deeply for that young tree out there, lonely in the great plains.

Taun didn’t question her, when she’d sit silently staring out across the savannah. There were so many things out there to see, but the young tree was too far and too small to spot. Sari occasionally would ask questions of Sen about all the creatures she could see, usually just faint splotches in the distance. As she learned, she grew ever more confident about journeying out to another tree.

Sen, though, did not share her confidence. Sen refused to send more minns out to the young tree, despite knowing how much it was needed. The loss of her minns still clouded her thoughts, the scent would not leave her.

The next closest trees to the young tree were across a vast gorge. Two other pairs of minns had been sent to cross it and had never made it. Even in the dry season crossing it was treacherous. Steep walls of crumbling dirt, dotted with rocks just waiting to break free, and hardly a path to be found.

Another tree, on the same side of the gorge as Sen, had sent two minns to Sen, intending for them to rest and then carry on across to the new tree. Sari had been excited about their arrival, and wished to talk to them, but Sen insisted that they needed their rest if they were to carry on. The two, very unfortunately, met the same end as Sari’s parents near the water hole.

It was a blow to Sari’s confidence and her wanderlust quavered. Sen’s rain-scent had returned, but with it came fear. It was a sharper scent, and it caused most of the minns to hide away from the tension it projected. Rather than hiding, Sari climbed up. Taun followed nervously. Near the leaves the scent lay more heavy.

“What is wrong, Mother Sen?” Sari asked with great concern.

A sigh of quavering branches answered, “The young tree is suffering. All of the great trees are distressed. The rainy season approaches, and soon no minns will be able to travel to it.”

“Why is that?” Taun’s voice cracked as he tried to shake off the scent of fear.

“Rains would take a harsh toll on any spores or seeds carried through. Not enough would make it. You brave little ones have seen for yourselves what can happen in the rains. Winds so strong you couldn’t walk through them, lightning blinding the eyes, and floods so quick you may not even know they were coming until you were gone with them.”

Sari could picture these things in her mind, for indeed she witnessed them before. Most minns never were brave enough to even feel the rains, let alone watch them roll in and out as she and Taun had done.

“Can we not wait out the rains, Mother Sen?” Sari asked.

“No little minn, the young tree would not last through it.”

Sari knew Sen was afraid of sending out another group, and all the minns of the tree picked up on this fear. Thus, none wished to go besides Sari and Taun. Sen had known this, of course, but thought it cruel to subject Sari to the same potential fate as her parents.

Still, the gentle assurance came, “We can go, Mother Sen.” Sari responded, and Taun purred his agreement.

Time was closing in, and there was nothing else to be done for it. The other trees had tried to spare Sen from having to risk it, but no more help could come. They were the last hope for the young tree, and none of the great trees could bear the thought of loss.

So Sen, still rather downcast, helped Sari and Taun prepare. They laid out a route through the Savannah, avoiding the water hole altogether. It would take longer, but hopefully they could avoid the jiir entirely. They wrapped up a good portion of their seeds, spores, and eggs in leaves just in case the rain came in early.

Sari and Taun decided to leave just as the sun was rising. The first day of travel wouldn’t take them at all close to the jiir, so it was safe to travel in the light. Taun was a bit nervous walking out from under the tree’s cover for the first time in his life, but Sari’s bravery was infectious. Before long, they were both bounding along as best they could with their packs of leaves, scrambling up the occasional rock that stood in their path.

After half a day of travel, they settled in for a rest under a bush. They woke again as the sun was setting, casting wonderful hues of orange and pink across the sky. As the stars set about twinkling for the night, Sari and Taun came across the first strange thing on their journey. A large herd of animals, all sleeping for the night, stood right in their path. Sari knew it was safe; she was glad for Sen taking the time to tell her all about the animals of the Savannah. Still, it was quite unnerving, these herd animals absolutely towered over the two tiny minns.

After passing through the herd, they again went on without much excitement until they came to the edge of a dry river. It was rocky and bare, they felt quite exposed. Taun was thankful that they had not had to cross this during the day. Strange critters under the rocks made noises and occasionally caused the rocks to shift. Sari and Taun moved through it as quickly as they could.

Near the end of the night, they came to a large rock and decided to climb it for a look around. In the distance was the glint of the water hole, Sari shivered a little bit at the thought of it. Taun pulled her gently down off the rock, and they snuggled up together at the base for another rest. The sun rose as the two were fast asleep.

At some point late in the day, Sari and Taun were startled awake by a low rumble. At first, they stayed still, listening intently. Taun thought it may be thunder, as the storms were moving ever closer. Soon they realized the rumbling was getting too close. They gathered their packs quickly and darted up on top of the rock. The sight froze them in place and took a few minutes to even process.

A large herd of many different animals was headed their way, the rumbling footsteps shook the ground all around. Behind them were large black clouds.

“It’s smoke, Taun,” Sari said in a hushed voice.

Sometimes the storms preceding the rains created massive amounts of lightning, but no actual rain. This sparked fires quite often. The trees themselves, never had any concerns about the fires, other than perhaps a few days of smoky air. The reason for this, is that their roots spread far out, much further than the canopy. They’d secrete a kind of sap that would leech to the surface. Most plants would not grow in this soil, but a few particular kinds thrived. Those kinds were all fireproof, creating a barrier the fire could not cross.

Sari and Taun were afraid, there was no barrier here. The fire would sweep through faster than they could run, and that’s if they didn’t get trampled first. But the herds were moving right towards them, and this sparked a crazy idea in Taun’s mind.

“Sari, we’re going to have to jump.”

“Jump? Where?” Sari glanced around quickly.

“Right onto the backs of the animals,” Taun replied.

Clearly the herds could get away from the fire. First, Sari was shocked by the idea, then a bit dismayed. They had no idea what could happen, how an animal might react to suddenly having passengers. But there didn’t seem to be another way, so Sari agreed.

The herd animals caused a near earthquake from Sari and Taun’s perspective, but luckily their rock perch was stable. So they waited as the first animals moved by them. There were all sorts, some Sari could identify, but a lot she could not. It was much different discussing some faint blobs in the distance than seeing them up close.

Finally Taun nudged her side and pointed, one of the animals was nearly to them. “There Sari! Let’s go!”

Taun leapt up first, grabbing some fur to pull himself up. Sari nearly lost her balance from the wind the animals seemed to create, but finally managed a leap. She was much further back than Taun and did not have a good grip. Taun scrambled back towards her to help, but not before she lost one handhold, causing her to slip a little. One leaf pack tore open partially as she flailed to get the loose hand up on the animal. Taun grabbed her with his tail and pulled her up the rest of the way, Sari used her tail to hold the leaf pack shut. A few seeds had been lost and she wasn’t going to let more fall.

It was not a comfortable ride, but Sari managed to get a decent look around and what she saw made her heart sink. They were headed right towards the water hole. Sari buried her face in Taun’s fur and held onto the animal they rode tightly.

After what seemed to be quite a long time, the herd animals slowed and finally stopped. The fire was not headed in this direction, but rather up towards the gorge. The sun was getting quite low in the sky, and Taun nudged Sari. Sari looked up, then up even higher. Clouds were now towering above the Savannah. The rains were nearly here.

Luckily for Sari and Taun, the animals either did not notice them, or did not care. They slowly drifted around near the water hole, gathering back into their own herds as the sun set. Finally shaking off the bit of fear that had settled into her mind, Sari realized they were on the far side of the water hole. “Taun, we’re nearly there!”

Taun looked away up the hill and there they could finally see the lone little tree that was their destination.

They were both exhausted as darkness settled in around them. The herds were all still for the night, and Taun and Sari were able to climb safely down. They moved slowly up the hill, going around the large animals that were like boulders in a field now. As they reached the edge of the herds, they settled down for a short rest. But the exhaustion from the trip set hard upon them and both fell soundly asleep.

Sari was startled awake the following morning as the herds just down the hill were starting to stir for the day. She woke up Taun in a panic. “Taun! It’s morning, we need to go!”

Taun murmured lightly then slowly looked up, then he nearly jumped awake. It was light, and they were still far too close to the water hole.

Taun and Sari moved up the hill as quietly as they could. Taun wrapped his tail around Sari’s tail to calm her, because he felt she might bolt from fear. Sari very much had to fight the urge to run as she had done so many years ago. But running now would just draw attention to them, and possibly tear up her leaf packs even more. They couldn’t lose their precious cargo, not when they were so close.

As frightening as the thought of the jiir was, the storms also loomed far too close. They began to feel cooler air pushing out as the rains began to fall in the distance. They had to pick up the pace.

Taun and Sari were close enough to feel the tree calling to them when a sudden bolt of lighting seem to break open the sky above them. Sari jumped and fell over a rock, scraping up her leg badly, and causing her to shriek in pain for a few seconds. Taun covered her mouth quickly, until she choked back her shriek.

Taun looked around nervously, “You have to get up Sari.”

Sari tried to stand, but her leg was quite shaky. Taun quickly took her leaf packs, to try to make it easier for her to walk. Then the tree let out a horrendous creak in warning.

A jiir was coming. Taun sucked in a breath of panic then grabbed Sari and half-dragged her up towards the tree.

A vicious growl nearly froze them, so close behind. Sari ran awkwardly on three legs. Just as they thought it might catch up to them, the whistle of a whip branch sailed right past them. A crack and a yelp burst in their ears as Taun gave one last pull on Sari and they collapsed against the trunk of the little tree.

A couple seconds passed as Taun and Sari tried to catch their breath, but a few more cracks from whip branches stirred them and they clambered up the tree. Once safe in a Y of the branches, they both collapsed in exhaustion.

Sari and Taun woke in the night as heavy rains began to fall. Their new tree seemed to be humming with anticipation. It’s foliage above was enough to block out the rains, but it had not grown branches out and down to the ground yet. Just a few wispy whip branch hung down to the ground. They would have to live up high in the tree for a time, but the tree’s growth would renew and strengthen as they began to cultivate its new ecosystem.

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