Look to the Sky
Songbirds of Valnon
"This is a terrible idea," Alveron said, again, because the first four times he had said it--at home, in the market chamber, by the black lake, at the Hall of the Heavens-- it seemed to have no effect whatsoever. "We're going to get caught."
"We're not going to get caught," Thryse said, proving that in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Alveron was still making actual sounds that could be heard. He'd just been ignored for the past twenty minutes, while Thryse dragged them out into the tunnels for his latest brilliant idea.
"Are you sure?" Lairke glanced nervously around the narrow tunnel walls, their surface smooth and shining with the frequent movement of many bodies, every day, back and forth from the warrens to the mines. But it was well after working hours now, and the passage was distressingly empty. The boys' footsteps seemed to echo on for eternity. They held their breath as long as they dared, as even that seemed to multiply into an endless cacophony of echoes.
"We're not going to get caught," Thryse repeated, with firm confidence, "because nobody knows where we're going except me. And I only discovered it yesterday. And you're the only ones I've told. So if you want to get caught, you'll have to catch yourselves. Here, it's in this chamber somewhere."
He led them out of the passage and into a little-used storage area, a small bit of unworked cave. In the fitful light of Alveron's lantern, they could see the reason it had never been expanded. A great black mass of stone jutted out of the raw wall, too large and too hard to be moved. It sat among the empty barrels and baskets like a prince among peasants.
"What if there are clouds? What if we can't see it? We'll have gone through this for nothing." Lairke was shivering, but not with cold. He clutched an old wool blanket in his skinny arms, though he would not have need of it here. Down in the warrens, it was never really cold, though it was never precisely warm, either. But if they did not get caught, they would all want for a little warmth.
"Ugh, would you stop chewing on my arse?" Thryse poked expectantly in the blocked doorway of what seemed to be an old, fallen-in tunnel, hard up against the black stone. "When have I ever--"
"Last week," Alveron and Lairke said, together.
"You put us up to sneaking in the larder, and we wound up having to hide in a barrel of sulfured apples."
"The smell still hasn't come out of my hair."
"And the week before that--"
"Would also have been completely boring without my intervention." Thryse paused in his investigation long enough to give them both a filthy look. "No appreciation for my work. I should leave you both here--aha!" He vanished into seemingly nothing more than a slight fissure in the rock--a remarkable feat considering he was larger than either of the other two. A second later and he had popped out again, his red hair only a little more dusty than usual. "Through here. Follow me. It's wider than it looks, see."
"I'll try it," Alveron said, without needing to look at the pinched worry in Lairke's face. "Hold the lamp."
"Be careful," Lairke whispered, glancing over his shoulder, but there was nothing behind him but a large heap of rock spoil.
Alveron slid through the crack with remarkable ease, as it was indeed wider than it looked. Once through, he found himself standing in a small, circular space, barely big enough for him to share with Thryse. It became extra crowded as Lairke, no longer willing to stand outside alone, joined them with a little gasp of surprise. Among the rubble, cracked slabs of rock--once an elegant staircase--coiled tightly upwards into the dark. The air smelled cold and wet and fresh and Alveron trembled with a sudden excitement and longing. It smelled nothing like the fishy stagnation of the harbor, and certainly not like the stink of the warrens. It smelled like the sky.
Wordlessly, he reached out and took the lantern from Lairke, and together the three boys ascended the ancient stairs.
"It's nearly midnight," Lairke whispered, as it seemed too ancient a place for regular voices. "Are you sure we can see it, Thryse?"
"I'm sure... Listen. Can you hear it?"
They went still, holding their breath and each other. There was a sound, a sound that was a slow rushing motion, something vast and unending stirring all around them.
"It's the sea! And look!" Alveron fumbled to close the lantern's shutter, and in the sudden darkness, they could see the end of the stairs. The rocks parted like an opened eye, and beyond them was a deep darkness bluer than any suffocating tunnel-shadow. There were no clouds. It was like velvet scattered with cut diamonds, but far more rare and precious. It was the sky.
"I see them," Lairke gasped, in awe and delight at his own recognition. "There! Just like Lavras said!" He took the rest of the steps double, and Thryse had to pick up the blanket he dropped before following.
In a moment they were all three out of the tunnel, standing on a tiny lip of rock jutting out from the island's flank. Below them was the sea, above them the sky, and both of them glittered with a thousand lights.
Lairke thrust one shaking hand to the sky, pointing out a trio of bright stars right above. "And the other two as well! There, and there!"
They jostled together, buffeted by the wind, red-faced with cold and excitement. The blanket fell around their feet, forgotten, as the three boys basked in the light of the stars. For a long time they could not speak, only stand, and stare.
None of them could say what gave it away, or how they knew. But they knew it together, and all at once. They weren't alone. A second later a voice came out of the darkness of the island wall behind them, a man's voice, his tongue heavy with the accents of Antigus' people. They did not know the voice, but they knew it meant discovery, and discovery meant punishment. For them, and perhaps their families as well.
"It is late and then some, for boys to be out of their beds."
Alveron had been at the rear, but now stepped up to make himself even more a barrier, his arms spread in front of his cousins and his straw-colored hair blowing in a star-lit halo around his head.
"It was my idea! I made them! Don't--"
"No, it was me--" Thryse began, and Lairke spoke over them both, until they all were shouting a jumble of apology and protest.
"Enough! There's living and dead enough down here, and neither need a waking." The stranger stepped out of the lee of the rock, and they shrank before him. He was tall and cloaked in a bearskin almost as black and shaggy as his own hair.
Alveron did not quite relax. Antigus was known for his cruelty, and his men were double it in their eagerness to please him.
"It is a holy night for you, is it not?" The stranger pointed to the sky, and his arm was ringed with many bands of silver and gold. A warrior, and one of high rank. Alveron was still wetting his lips to speak when Lairke piped up behind him.
"It is the Festival of the Stars, my lord."
"Ah." He strode by them without a glance, his eyes on the sky as they shuffled out of his path, unwilling to turn their backs to him. "Small wonder then, that you would risk this. Tell me, little ones. What do the people of Hasafel name these stars, which you risk a flogging to see?"
"That is the Dove," Alveron said, when Lairke's voice and Thryse's learning failed them. Alveron pointed out the shapes in the sky, shapes he knew by his sister's careful placement of stones on a dark cloth. "And by it the Lark, and the Thrush. They are the first three children of Naime and Hasal, and they will be in the center of the sky at midnight, circling around Naime's Tear, the wandering star."
"I see. And it means something, this?"
"It's lucky," Thryse had found his voice at last. "If you make a prayer under the stars when they are like this, the birds carry it all the way to Naime, and to Heaven."
The man smiled up at the stars. "Antigus deems stars unlucky," he said. "They have no names in our tongue now, and if ever they did, they have been forgotten." He gave the three boys a measured glance. "So in thanks, I will not tell anyone I found you here. But you must take care. It's a good place for hunting gulls-nests, and some night you might find less friendly company here than me."
"You're... letting us go?" Behind him, Alveron heard Lairke's little breath of surprise.
The stranger shrugged. "On one condition." He waited just a moment, leaving them hanging in suspense, before a smile broke over his face. "That you first make the prayers you came to give. Would be a pity to come all this way and miss your chance."
"And what prayer will you make?" Alveron said, quite without knowing why, and wondering if relief had made him giddy.
"My prayer?" He stared at the sky for a long time, and Alveron began to think that for a barbarian he looked rather fine, with his keen eyes and narrow smile. "To serve my master well, of course. Now then, you should get back before you're wanted." He pointed again at the sky. "Thrush, Lark--?"
"And Dove." Alveron felt Thryse pluck his sleeve. Having been granted reprieve, he and Lairke were not eager to push their luck.
"I thought together they looked like a swan, as I have painted on my shield." He shrugged. "But then, is that not the way of people? To look on the same stars, and think them different? The stars do not care, or change."
"Ver," Thryse hissed, from down the steps. "Hurry up."
The stranger waved him on, and Alveron had no choice but to turn his back on him, on the stars, and return underground. They were well on their way down the main passage before Alveron skidded to a halt, realization making the blood drain from his face. "A swan. A swan. Do you know who that was?"
"Someone with some nerve," Thryse said, "since Antigus likes birds little more than he does stars."
"He was favored," Lairke added, scrubbing his cold nose on his sleeve. "All that gold he wore? He must have been--"
"Grayce," Alveron said, and it was his cousins' turn to stop in their tracks, and go pale. "Grayce, right hand of Antigus, his master of horse, and his son and heir in everything but blood and name. I heard my father speak of him, how strange it was to see a man of the surface with a bird's emblem."
"And he let us go?" Thryse gasped.
"Maybe he only means to punish us later," Lairke said, visibly shaken. "To come down with his men and--"
"He didn't know our names, and he could barely see our faces. He let us go because--" Alveron ended on a bewildered shrug. "Because he wanted to."
"Heaven must have heard our prayer," Thryse said, unusually pious. He had only wanted to go see the stars for the adventure, and for Lairke.
"Yes," Alveron agreed, but he wondered to himself for many days after if it had head Grayce's as well.