Wow, has it really been over a year since my last post? I’ve still been writing, reading, learning… And here, at long last, is a new story. I hope you enjoy.
Don’t forget to check out the Tiny Tales Podcast for more stories that you might not see here: https://www.tinytalespodcast.com/
The child lay on the shore of clouds and gazed at the world below. Beneath the pool of sky, land stretched green and gray and brown. The shadow of drifting feather clouds passed dark over the forest, pierced by the jagged arrows of bird flocks.
An arm sweeping, stirring the empty sky, the child watched through half-open eyes. Wind tickled his fingertips. He was wide-awake, dreaming. Walking the green stretches. Striding through the trees. He scaled mountains, forded rivers. Mighty Cirus. Unafraid.
Sighing, he stretched an empty hand to the open sky, shifting near enough to the edge that cold wind brushed his face. With a soft answering sigh, the clouds gave way. A blur of muted gray, and he was falling.
The world flashed bitter white, blue, green, white again as Cirus tumbled. The sun was a bright smear.
His bones were hollow as river reeds, and the wind snatched him, tossing him from hand to hand. Its roaring laughter pounded in his ears. And the land spun closer until the treetops were a green froth with a blue thread of water woven through them.
When it finished its play, the wind flung Cirus into the topmost branches of a tree and rushed away, spinning through the leaves. There he hung in the net of sharp branches, bruised and scratched, head to the earth and feet in the sky. The ground dangled dangerously close. When the tree swayed and groaned, Cirus held his breath.
The sun burned bright overhead; a bead of sweat tickled along his dark cheek and caught in his hair. A bird alighted on a trembling branch, squawked in alarm, and with a flurry of orange feathers, soared away. Cirus’s head spun. After hanging so long, the earth seemed up and the sky seemed down; if the tree let him go, he’d hurtle into open sky with nothing to catch him.
A branch creaked, and a pale face appeared in the shadow of the tree trunk. Mossy eyes stared at Cirus.
“Go away,” he said in a thin voice.
But a girl climbed up to perch on a nearby branch. Her feet were bare. Leaves and flowers hung from her tangled mass of brown hair like they grew there. She blinked at him then wriggled onto her back so they were both upside down and face to face.
“How’d you get up there?” she asked.
“I fell,” Cirus said miserably.
“Oh.” The girl squinted at the blue sky and the ever-shifting pattern of sunlight and shaking green leaves. “Well, what are you doing now?”
The tree dipped in the breeze, and Cirus’s fingers clutched at twigs, crushing them as he tried to hold on. The girl squirmed closer. “Your face is turning a funny color. Why don’t you climb down?”
“I’m stuck,” Cirus whispered.
The girl flipped right-side up again and reached out, bunching his shirt in her fist.
“No!” Cirus gasped, but it was too late. She yanked.
Branches snapped and scratched; the world lurched. He was falling again, but this time, the girl hauled him up next to her. Cirus clamped his arms and legs around the branch. Bark bit into his cheek.
Frowning, the girl sat back on her heels. “Why’d you climb up here if you don’t like it?”
“I didn’t climb,” Cirus mumbled. “I fell.”
She squinted upward again, her face wrinkling, and her mouth dropped slightly open. “How’d you get up there?”
“I live there.”
The girl examined him out of the corner of her eye. “But you haven’t any wings.”
Cirus didn’t answer. He wanted the girl and her staring to go away. She sat easily on the dipping, swaying branch while he clung to it until his arms ached. A knot was digging into his stomach.
She clambered higher to thrust her head out of the treetop, and Cirus scooted to the trunk, clumsily maneuvering to rest his back against it.
“How do you get to the clouds?” the girl called from above.
“I don’t know.”
She dropped down beside him, making the tree shudder. “How are you going to get back then?”
Cirus opened his mouth and shut it again. “I… don’t know.”
The girl’s eyes shone, wide and dreamy. “I’ve never been so high. Maybe Wen knows how to get there.” And she vanished downward.
When Cirus didn’t follow, she popped up again. “Come on,” she said, and grabbed his hand in a warm, dry grip, nearly yanking him into open air.
“I don’t want to!” he wailed, clinging to the trunk.
The girl frowned. “Tree’s not tall enough to reach the clouds. Don’t you want to go back?”
Through the tangle of branches, far below and yet terrifyingly close, lay the muddled fallen leaves of the forest floor. Cirus’s head whirled, and he leaned back against the tree trunk. “I’m fine here,” he said faintly.
The girl chewed her lip. “You can’t climb,” she said finally, and Cirus shook his head. She brightened. “Well, that’s easy then. I’ll show you. It’s not hard really. Down is harder than up, but I can help.”
Cirus glanced uneasily downward again, but the girl swung to block his view of the ground. “That’s the first thing you’re doing wrong,” she said. “Don’t look any further than your next step. Now, put your foot here.” She patted a nearby branch.
Cirus searched for a reason to refuse but couldn’t find one. If she left, he’d be stuck here until he fell asleep from exhaustion and plummeted to his death. Trembling, he eased off the branch and put his foot where she pointed.
Step by step, she guided him, flitting around him like a sparrow, showing him where to put his weight, where to hold, how to test if a branch was strong. When she bent close, her hair smelled of dirt and sunshine.
The last gap to the ground was a tumble. Cirus landed with a gasp, lost his balance, and sat hard on the leaves. The girl dropped lightly beside him and dusted off her hands. “There.”
His legs shook and his hands ached, but here he was on solid ground. Mighty Cirus. He had one wide, breathless look at the forest before the girl strode into the trees.
“Come on!” she yelled, and Cirus scrambled after her.
The girl’s name was Tara. Her hands always seemed to be full. As quickly as she snatched something up—pebbles, a bit of bark, leaves, a flower, a fallen nut—she dropped it again and plucked up something else.
Cirus struggled to keep up. Between scrambling over fallen logs or ducking low branches, he gaped at the forest. The trees laced their leafy hands together into a close ceiling of green and brown. Shimmers of white and blue cut through from the sky, but here the light was a warm, muted gold. Trees were unexpectedly large things when seen from below instead of above. Ahead and to his sides and over his shoulder, the forest stretched into more rocks and trees in infinite variation. Uneasily, Cirus realized he couldn’t tell one direction from another. Then the trees abruptly pulled back, and they stepped into a circle of golden sunlight.
A stream bubbled happily through the clearing. Tara dug a stick out of the leaves and poked at the reeds waving in the water. Slowly, the yellow tangle moved and sat up. A pale blue hand pulled back the reeds, and a sleepy eye blinked at them.
“He’s from the clouds,” Tara told the girl in the water, jerking her head toward Cirus.
The eye turned to look at him. Behind the veil of hair, a mouth yawned and said, “Oh.”
“Do you know how to get up there?” Tara asked, nudging pebbles into the stream with her toes. The azure hand reached out to push them back to shore.
The girl in the stream shook her head, spraying droplets over the murmuring water.
“Wen doesn’t do much but sleep,” Tara muttered to Cirus. “But sometimes after it rains, she tells us stories about the sky.”
Cirus started to ask who ‘us’ was, but Wen had fallen asleep again, the water stirring her hair. Tara jabbed her with the stick.
“Ask Aro,” Wen muttered before rolling over and folding her arms over her face.
“Who’s Aro?” Cirus asked, looking between them.
Tara pointed to a gray mass of ridges and peaks surging over the forest. “He lives up there.”
Cirus tilted his head back and stared. The forest cover had hidden the grim vastness of the mountains. What he had seen from the clouds as flat grayness had become sharp drops and jagged crests. Their size turned the trees to spindly green weeds. And further up, up, up in the sky lay the blue gap and the underside of the white shore. Cirus had been half-asleep when he’d fallen, too startled to understand what was happening. Now, he stared into the blue until his eyes began to water, and for the first time, he wondered how he would get back.
“Come on!” Tara called and trotted back into the forest.
Wen was asleep, her breath a slow ripple in the stream, and Cirus slowly followed Tara. She plucked a golden fruit from a bush and ate it as they walked. “Are there fruits in the sky?” she asked, her chin shimmering with juice.
“No,” Cirus said.
No trees, no fruits, just fields and valleys and clouds and peaks and rolling plains of cloud that surged into unimaginable shapes. And a sky that erupted in splashes of color: blue and violet and streaks of red, orange, and yellow. At night, velvet darkness sparkled with diamonds; a cool, stoic moon glowed in the sky. The wind that rushed there smelled cool and clean and empty. Cirus wrinkled his nose. The wind here stank of wetness and dirt and trees.
“Flowers?” Tara asked.
“Nuts? Mushrooms? Moss?”
Tara frowned. “Sounds like the world’s better down here.”
“It isn’t!” Cirus said indignantly.
“It just isn’t.”
Tara shrugged, wiped her sticky chin on her sleeve, and tossed aside the fruit core. “You must be hungry.” She plucked another fruit, this one brilliant scarlet, and tossed it to Cirus. It bounced off a tree trunk and rolled into the leaves where Cirus stepped haughtily over it. He was hungry, but not hungry enough to try her dirty fruit after she insulted his clouds.
When they reached the foot of the gray cliffs, Tara started up, leaping easily from rock to rock then spreading herself wide like a soaring bird. Cirus craned his neck to see the distant edge she was climbing toward. It wasn’t as high as the clouds, but somehow that made it more terrifying. He wanted to climb up as little as he’d wanted to climb out of the tree, but Tara was quickly growing smaller above him. Clinging to the rock, he slowly followed.
His fingers quickly blistered; his arms ached from the strain of pulling himself upward. When he had climbed over the treetops, the wind rushed to slap at him. Only after he had looked down did he remember that Tara had told him not to. The slope angled sharply away, leaving nothing between him and the hard ground. His hands went weak, slippery with sweat, and his vision began to blur, the world spinning around him.
“Come on!” Tara had reached the top and was looking over the edge at him.
“I can’t,” Cirus whispered. He was stuck in the middle, too scared to go up, too scared to go down.
“It’s not as high as the clouds.”
But that made it worse. The clouds were so high that falling seemed impossible and the ground too far away to be frightening. Here it dangled close, ready to crush his thin bones. He had dreamed about moments like this, but dreams were dreams. A dream he couldn’t wake up from wasn’t a dream at all. It was a nightmare.
“You can’t just sit there,” Tara called.
Cirus stared at his hand that was puckered with his desperate grip. Slowly, he willed it to let go, to find a new hold. Slowly, he climbed. Just when he thought he couldn’t hold on another moment, Tara leaned down and grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, hauled him up.
They found Aro halfway up the lowest peak. To Cirus’s relief, there had been no more cliffs, just winding paths leading up the small gray mound that clung to the edge of the starker, white-tipped ridges.
Tara sagged against a boulder and told Aro, “He’s from the clouds. We’re trying to find a way back there.”
The gray-faced boy had been sitting and looking out over the valley. He smiled mildly at Cirus, who was on the ground panting, then turned back to the view. “It must be wonderful up there.”
“Yes. It is.”
“So, do you know a way up or not?” Tara asked, always impatient, always moving.
Aro considered then looked further up the slopes. “The clouds come low at dawn. We could try then.”
Gracefully, Aro slid off the boulder and, to Cirus’s horror, began to climb. Tara clambered after him and then came Cirus, dragging himself along. He was tired. Tired of climbing. Tired and sore. He was growing sulkier and sulkier as they zigged and zagged along rock walls until Aro stopped on a ledge, sat with his back against the sheer rock, and yawned. “We can wait here.”
Tara sprawled next to him and gathered up pebbles in her hand. She flicked them one by one into the air then leaned over the cliff to watch them jump and tumble down the mountainside.
Cirus lowered his aching body onto the cold stone. The setting sun splashed color across the sky, and he watched it longingly. All he wanted was a soft, feathery bed of clouds where he could curl up and dream. Maybe he would even dream himself where he was right now, only without the sore fingertips and grumbling stomach.
The sun slid beneath the horizon, and darkness settled over the mountains. Tara was asleep with her head on her arm. Aro had tilted his head back to stargaze. Cirus curled up on the cold, hard ground and tried to sleep. The world was full of strange noises that bounced and echoed against the rock, but eventually, he wandered into the peaceful forgetfulness of dreams.
Before he’d fully woken, he felt the frigid morning air on his nose and the hard rock digging into his ribs, and tried to burrow back into sleep, but his dreams slipped away, leaving him shivering in the gray dawn.
Aro stood at the lip of the ledge, looking curiously at the fog bunched around them. A gray veil had hidden the valley and sky. He smiled at Cirus and spread his arms in welcome.
But this wasn’t home; these weren’t his clouds. These clouds were thin and wispy, shredding in the wind. Already the sunlight was burning them away. A lump wedged in Cirus’s throat, and he shook his head.
Aro looked at Tara who was sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees. “Maybe there’s another way,” she said.
A silver tear ran to the end of Cirus’s nose and hung there.
“Oh, don’t cry,” Tara said, leaving her seat to hover anxiously next to him. “We’ll just have to climb higher.”
“But there isn’t any way.” Cirus sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. As the fog slowly lifted, he could see that even the tallest mountain peaks didn’t reach his clouds. “You were right. I haven’t any wings.”
“Wyfan have wings,” Aro said.
Tara made a quick, choking sound in her throat.
“Wyfan?” Cirus echoed. “Who’s that?”
Tara shook her head frantically, but Aro didn’t seem to notice. “The Wyfan lives in a cave on the dark side of the mountain.”
A glimmer of hope cut through Cirus like a beam of moonlight through the clouds, and he scrambled onto his aching feet. “Show me.”
“Tara knows where it is.”
Tara had hunched up, looking away from them both.
“Please,” Cirus said, but she shook her head.
Anger flushed Cirus’s cheeks. He hadn’t wanted to climb out of the tree, but she’d made him. He hadn’t wanted to scale the cliff either, but she’d made him do that too. “You said there had to be another way. I want to go home!”
Tara sighed and rested her forehead on her knees. “I’ll take you,” she whispered.
A cold drenching rain began to fall as they climbed. The rocks turned slick, and when the rain fell too hard and fast to see, Tara pulled Cirus under a small ledge. They huddled shoulder to shoulder watching the raindrops beat against the stone and run in thin rivulets down the mountain.
Cirus was wet and stiff with cold. His pure white clouds never rained; they held him safe and dry above all that. But Tara’s shoulder was warm against his. There hadn’t been any warm, friendly people on his clouds either.
When the storm rushed on, they clambered out into the wet, shining world. Following the mountain’s wide curve, they found where the mountainside folded inward, and at the heart of the crease, a dark cave split the gray rock. Tara huddled behind a boulder, her face ashy.
“Wing-fang,” she whispered. “We don’t wake him.”
Cirus stepped into the shadow of the crevice. The ground bit his aching feet as he crept forward. When he looked down, white bits of bone were strewn among the jagged rocks.
“Is—is anyone there?” he called. His voice echoed hollowly back.
Wind hissed against the stone as he shifted uneasily from foot to foot. Then, inside the cave, something rustled and scraped. Within the darkness, darkness moved and stretched into the light. Out came a serpentine neck and a bulking body, all sinew and leather-skin. A dark head surged up and hovered, glaring with bulbous golden eyes.
Cirus stumbled back, choking on the urge to run. But he had climbed a tree and a mountain; he had fallen from the sky. And he clenched his fists.
“You have wings.” His voice fluttered weakly in his throat. “And I was hoping you could return me to the clouds.”
The Wyfan’s spined tail slithered across its razor clawed feet and lashed irritably. “Why should I?” it asked.
“Because…because I want to go back.”
The Wyfan laughed, a grumble like rasping rocks. “And if I do, what’s in it for me?”
Cirus thought a moment. “What would you like?”
The Wyfan cocked its head and made a show of thinking before it snaked closer. “You woke me, you know? It isn’t polite.”
“I—I’m sorry,” Cirus whispered, shrinking back from the rancid, rotten breath puffing from the Wyfan’s nostrils.
“But now that I’m awake, I feel quite hungry.” The white teeth clicked together. “Yes. Something to eat, I think.” And it smiled, a wide broken-boned smile.
“Fruit?” Cirus asked.
The Wyfan threw back its head and roared, its laughter shaking like thunder against the stones.
Cirus clamped his hands over his ears. “Tell me what you want! I’ll bring you anything!”
The Wyfan’s laughter stopped, echoing away with a soft rumble. “Anything?” Its golden eyes glittered brighter.
“Yes,” Cirus said desperately.
The leathery head hovered immense and dark next to his shoulder, the golden eyes fixed on something at the opening of the crevice. “Fruit,” it crooned. “So juicy. So tender. So young. Yes, little one, bring me some fruit.” A line of spittle dangled from its mouth.
Cirus turned and saw Tara’s pale face watching them over boulder. “You don’t mean…?” The Wyfan’s eye swiveled toward him, its pupil a black void. “I won’t,” Cirus said flatly.
The Wyfan pulled back and unfurled itself, stretching its wings wider than the cave. “I suppose you don’t want to get to the clouds that badly then.”
“I do!” Cirus ached to go back. This place was horrid, this dream he couldn’t wake from: the cold, the aching, and the awful creature looming over him. He glanced over his shoulder, and uninvited, the thought squirmed into his mind that maybe it wouldn’t matter once he’d gone home. The world would be only a flat green field. Wen and Tara and Aro would all be too small to see. The memory would only be a nightmare that in time would fade.
Shifting rock rustled behind him, and the Wyfan’s hot breath panted against his cheek. It opened its mouth to speak, but a stone cracked against the side of its head, bouncing to the ground.
With a shriek, the Wyfan launched toward the crevice entrance, knocking Cirus to the ground. As he fell, he caught a glimpse of Tara sprinting away. The Wyfan’s wings snapped taut in open air and it dove, talons raking across her back as she fled.
“Wait!” Cirus called, but they had vanished.
He scrambled up, his feet sliding on pebbles and bone. When he reached the first curve around the mountain, the path crumbled. He tumbled down a rockslide and landed hard on his back, curling up as loose stones rained on him. Without Tara, the routes were hidden and dangerous. Cirus crawled sorely to his feet and stumbled onward.
The Wyfan’s shrieks led him, echoing confusingly against the looming stone. Dark wings cut across the sky, casting fleeting shadows. At last, Cirus found the gray cliff that rushed down into the forest. He crawled out into a tree that hung over the edge and peered down.
The Wyfan landed in the clearing with a flurry of wings. Wen stood in the stream, hurling rocks at him. When the Wyfan whirled to face her, Tara darted out of the trees and drove a stick into its side. It bounced uselessly off the tough hide. The Wyfan roared angrily and spun, its tail knocking Wen into the water.
The tree bark was rough in Cirus’s sweaty hands. Tara shouldn’t have made the Wyfan angry. This was her fault.
He yelped and nearly fell as a tight grip closed around his ankle. Aro was tugging at him.
“What do you want?” Cirus snapped, yanking his foot away.
“I need your help.” Aro hurried to a boulder sitting at the lip of the slope and began to dig frantically at the loose dirt around its base. Then he braced his back against it. “Help me!”
Cirus didn’t move. “It’s too big,” he said coldly.
He didn’t want to kill the Wyfan. Eventually it would calm down, and then he could make a deal with it. Not for Tara, of course, but there must be something else the Wyfan must want. He ignored the cold slither in the pit of his stomach reminding him he had almost considered it.
Aro frowned and wedged his side against the boulder, his feet sliding uselessly on the loose stones.
Cirus slid down the tree and began to climb back the way he’d come. He needed to find the Wyfan’s cave again, or maybe he’d keep climbing toward the highest white peaks that just might reach the clouds if he found the right one. Behind him, Tara cried out, but he couldn’t tell if it was in pain or fear.
Tears burned his eyes as he climbed blindly, pinching his fingers and sending stones tumbling in his wake. When he turned and wiped his aching eyes, the valley had shrunk behind him, flattening to an empty green field. The clearing had vanished and with it, the Wyfan’s shrieks. He sat on the edge of the world, this time because he’d climbed there. Mighty Cirus. But the thought was hollow.
Not once since he’d fallen from the clouds had he felt brave, had he felt how he was supposed to. He’d only climbed out of the tree because Tara had been there.
Dreams were dangerous two-edged things. The only safe ones never came true. Made real, they must be borne.
Cirus turned and still afraid, slid down the mountain.
Aro was still beside the boulder, his heels digging ruts in the dirt. Cirus planted his shoulders against the cold stone and heaved. He would never walk the empty clouds again, never see the land far below, and he pushed harder.
The boulder shifted. It groaned against the edge, hesitated, then tumbled over. Cirus landed on his back and twisted over to watch the boulder bounce down the gray slope. Faster and faster it rolled, launching into the air and throwing bits of stone when it landed. It crashed through the trees and burst into the clearing. With a horrible, shrieking crunch, it struck the Wyfan.
The boulder splashed into the stream, smashed into a tree, teetered, and landed with a tired groan. The forest trembled and went still. A mangled wing twitched. An ugly brown groove had been carved across the clearing.
The Wyfan was dead.
The child sat in a tree and looked out over the valley. The deep purple of late sunset clung to the horizon, and the clouds glowed red. A golden fruit, half-eaten, dangled forgotten in his hand. There had not been fruit in the clouds, and that was a shame.
Cirus looked down at the clearing. The boulder still sat against the tree, and the groove it carved had turned pale green with new growth. Now Wen liked to sit on it and comb her hair.
Tara was sprawled on a nearby branch, dropping leaves and watching them spin on the breeze. Like the horizon, Cirus sat in the middle, looking up, looking down, seeing the world from two angles, neither one quite complete. But here he sat. It was less lonely, after all.
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