Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

A Moment of Gravity, Circumscribed

Djonn’s father owned the last ticker in the city and made sure everyone knew it. Brass-bodied, the ticker looked fragile and cold, its clouded glass face obscuring the dark symbols beneath. Despite its age, it ticked loud and regular, breaking the arc of a day into increments.

“You have thirty ticks to decide,” Djonn’s father said when he made a deal. Djonn loved that Father knew how long a person took to make up their mind.

He longed to open the ticker, to find what made the “yes-no-yes-no” rhythm inside. After their dependent, Raeda, found the ticker far downtower a year ago, Father’s deals went “yes” more often than “no.” The ticker was a treasure. Father hung it high on their wall and wouldn’t let Djonn’s brothers fly with it. Djonn wasn’t even permitted to wind the ticker. Djonn was clumsy.

Father said so that morning before he took to wing, his satchel strapped to his chest, lumpy with small treasures.

Djonn’s three irritable brothers shook their heads and elbowed Djonn. They’d stayed up all night talking beneath the ticker’s sturdy rhythm. Now, they pushed Djonn out of their way, pocketed six noisy fighting birds, and flew to the market on the city’s southern edge.

Then Djonn’s mother climbed the ladder uptower to scour the roof with the other women. Raeda disappeared. Finally alone, Djonn teetered on a three-legged stool. The ticker said “yes-no-yes,” cold in his hands.

When the stool’s leg snapped, Djonn toppled and the ticker cracked beneath him like a dropped egg. Bent metal pieces spilled golden across the floor. Djonn’s home fell silent.

When Father returned, he would hang Djonn from Harut tower by his toes until his nose bled.

Unless.

“Raeda!” Djonn shouted, hoping she lurked nearby. Raeda would help. Djonn scooped up metal pieces and bits of broken glass. Held them out to her when she straightened from the family’s small garden on the ledge.

“You unlucky boy,” she said. “Gravity’s own monster.” She sounded like Mother, which annoyed him. He’d turned twelve and deserved more respect, especially from someone younger.

Raeda’s robe was faded at the shoulders and she’d hemmed the sleeves to her elbows. Her sunstruck skin looked green beneath the yellow cloth Djonn’s mother favored. She’d patched her wingstraps with spare spider silk; wore them crisscrossed over her still-flat chest. But she owned no wings: her only pair had ripped months ago.

Raeda took the ticker pieces. She paced back to the ledge and the better light, muttering.

“What do we do?”

She answered him by holding her hands out toward the empty sky. The sun played light across the shards. Djonn imagined them falling towards the distant clouds.

“No!” he shouted, moving fast. He yanked her away from the ledge. “Raeda, you’ll make it worse!”

Djonn grabbed the pieces. Hurried to hide them in his sleeping mat. The thick down pad sat folded atop a basket that held his things.

On a basket handle, Djonn’s messenger bird ruffled feathers in protest, then settled back to hooded sleep.

“You’d greet your father with handfuls of garbage?” Raeda teased him. “Your brothers will never let you live it down.”

She was right, but Djonn bristled. “They’ll blame you too. You’re meant to look after me.”

“You’re old enough to mind yourself,” she said. With her back to the ledge Raeda watched Djonn and waited. The city’s towers rose bone white behind her, set off by blue sky. Djonn looked at the hook where the ticker once hung on their home’s central wall, behind the circle of three-legged bone stools and bright yellow cushions. Where the family crowded for dinner. Where Father made deals with friends like Raeda’s uncle Maru, and the wingmaker, and others who gambled on fighting birds, or needed a helping hand.

His heart did a pitterpat imitation of the ticker. Yes-no-yes. Djonn met Raeda’s eyes. “You can help me.”

Raeda mended clothes. She cleaned. She weeded the family garden and mulched it with guano from the roof. She looked after Djonn and told him stories. She scavenged treasures from downtower and brought them to Father. Or she had, until her wings ripped beyond all repair.

Djonn cleared his throat. “You must help me find another ticker, Raeda, before Father comes home.” He said the words firmly, as Father would. He thought about counting to thirty.

Raeda shook her head. “There are no more. I’ve looked.”

“There must be! Somewhere!” He thought of all the tiers where his ancestors had lived, descending into the clouds.

Treasure came from below, Djonn knew, passed one generation to the next up the city’s bone towers until something broke or disappeared. Father kept an eye out for metal and glass, to keep it from being lost. “The weight of things drags folks down until they lose everything,” he said. “No one falls or starves downtower if I can help it.” He’d say that and nod at the ticker.

He liked lenses and tools especially. And knives. Raeda, whom Father sheltered when trouble befell her uncle Maru, had proven especially good at finding those. Plus a few rarer treasures, like the ticker. But finding treasures had grown difficult. Metal and glass were rare in a city of bone and birds, clouds and sky.

Last night, Djonn’s brothers had whispered about the clouds below. How treasure hid far downtower. Yes, for those strong enough to fly that low, strong enough to carry it up. How Raeda knew more than stories. Yes. How she knew what hid in the clouds, yes, maybe even in the broken tower, Lith.

Father had shushed them, furious. No. The clouds hid many dangers. Were too far down. Lith was a story. No. Leave Raeda alone.

Now, if Djonn could win Raeda’s help, perhaps he’d find a treasure better than the ticker before Father returned.

Raeda crossed the bone floor near the yellow cushions and knelt, pressing her back against the central wall where the ticker had hung. She tucked her feet beneath her in a posture entirely made of “no.”

“He’ll blame you too,” Djonn said. She looked at him, her brown eyes calm. “He knows I do not drop things.”

Djonn always dropped things. But Djonn paid attention when Father made deals. He knew give and take, the importance of speed. “My old wings, Raeda. They’re yours if you take me down to salvage.”

At this, she looked out to the ledge, out at the sky, the city’s towers. She flexed her fingers, worn rough on the fibrous ladders she used to climb from one tier to the next on their tower.

The city’s fifty-eight spires were beyond her reach. Without wings, she could only climb up and down, never to another tower, never far away.

Djonn silently counted to ten, then walked to where she sat and held out his hand, as he’d seen Father do. She put her hand in his and they clasped the deal.

Her lips parted in a smile, too quickly.

Perhaps, Djonn worried, she knew he’d kept his old wings to take apart, to see how they worked. Perhaps he’d decided wrong, or too fast. But a deal was a deal. Raeda would take him downtower on the ladders to salvage and when they’d found something to replace Father’s ticker, they’d come back up and he’d give her the wings.

He found a soft silk satchel in his basket; bound it over his shoulder and to his hip. Reached for a spare coil of rope ladder.

“You’ll give me my wings now.” She said it softly, still kneeling. Djonn felt the moments slipping away. When he nodded, Raeda smiled. “And I will take you into the clouds to find a treasure.”

“What?” Djonn’s pride at his first deal crumpled. Not even his father dared the clouds, their storms, the giant birds that prowled there. Yet Djonn’s brothers thought Raeda knew more about the clouds than she was telling.

And yes, Djonn needed a treasure that would save him from Father’s rage and his brothers’ ridicule. So he swallowed his doubts and retrieved the old gray wings from his basket for Raeda. Gave them to her.

He lifted his new wings, all gold spidersilk and fine bone battens, from the basket. He slipped the straps over his shoulders. At the last moment, he lifted his bird from its perch, removed its hood, and fed a piece of dried goose into its sharp beak. The bird stretched its wings, flew to the ledge and waited for him there.

Raeda secured the gray wings to her wingstraps, and checked Djonn’s to make sure those were tight. Then she turned and leapt from Djonn’s family’s ledge, snapping the wings open as she jumped.

An updraft filled the wings’ faded silk and Raeda laughed.

Djonn unfurled his new wings carefully and checked the grips and battens as he’d been taught to do. The wingmakers were skilled, but tears could happen, even on new wings.

“Come on!” Raeda shouted, now gliding just beyond the balcony. She’d found a fine vent, and let it lift her to glide in a near-perfect circle.

Djonn swallowed his nerves and leapt after her.

• • • •

Raeda glided away from the tower, then raked her wings back. Djonn took a deep breath. When she dove, he followed, though he hated the steep plummet.

They dropped past tiers where families like Djonn’s crowded, down the cold drafts to dingier levels streaked with the garbage of those living above. In the neighboring towers’ shade, Djonn could see evidence of Harut’s central walls thickening, pushing the living spaces toward the tower’s ledges and the inevitable drop.

In Raeda’s stories, told while she cleaned or hemmed or tended the garden, people sometimes went into the clouds and didn’t return.

“They’re not strong enough, or they lose track of time, maybe.”

She’d told the stories with a smile, teasing Djonn about his skinny arms. “Your bones need to fill in. You’d get blown off the towers in the clouds.” She’d poked at him, but been careful around the bruises. His brothers had sharp elbows.

The city grew away from the clouds and people rose with it, she said. New bone tiers grew atop old ones, and, below, the central walls grew out, filling the towers. Even as the tools of Djonn’s grandfathers’ grandfathers pitted thin and dull, the city rose. The people rose out of the clouds, with the city, and were safer for it.

She hadn’t told stories since her wings ripped.

When Raeda pulled up and began to glide the city’s drafts again, Djonn prepared to circle the wide tower. They’d fly below the occupied tiers, beyond the places Djonn was allowed to go. Djonn breathed faster as they made the long glide around. He hoped no one saw them.

But with her wings spread full, Raeda dipped to the left and disappeared into the sun’s glare.

Djonn twisted his head from side to side, frantic. His wings wobbled. Above, a class of young fliers, five and six years old, flew tiny, ambitious arcs on patchwork wings over a net held by their teachers. Beyond the tower, an older group dove and mock-battled in the breeze. Below, only birds skimmed the air near the older tiers. The wind whistled in Djonn’s ears.

He looked up to the tower’s full height. He couldn’t see them, but he knew his mother, her friends, and their youngest children were still on Harut’s roof. They scrubbed at the bone with the rough scourweed that grew in the moist joins between tiers, hoping to make the tower grow higher.

Djonn’s message bird slowed beside him, knowing it wouldn’t get another piece of goose if it lost its master.

He scanned the thick clouds far below. Was she already down there? He saw no sign of it. Had she skipped out on him? Stolen his wings? Father would blame Djonn for much more than the ticker.

A low whistle made Djonn peer under his left wing. Between the shadows of the thick towers, gray wings flashed in the sun. Raeda banked towards the city’s eastern edge.

“Come on!”

Raeda turned to shadow as she used the neighboring tower’s windshear to accelerate.

Djonn struggled to do the same, whispering, “Wait!” He wobbled in the shear. Then he too pushed beyond his home towers.

A long glide later, he saw their destination: a gap carved in the city’s horizon by a blackened stump. Lith.

Djonn had thought it only one of Raeda’s stories. Even neighboring towers had risen far beyond the broken tower, had begun to forget.

They passed these towers, tiers long abandoned. Lith grew larger and darker.

The smell of it, Djonn realized, was more than Raeda’s dramatic talk. Rot, like a bird had crawled into a basket to die, but much worse. The tower itself, broken, she’d said, somewhere far below, made the stench.

Raeda slowed her approach, lifted a foot from the wings’ footsling, and landed on Lith in a cloud of dark dust. Djonn heard her coughing as he tried his own approach, wobbling and flying way too fast to step out.

“Careful!” Raeda shouted.

Djonn furled his wings in desperation, dropped hard to the tower’s splintered bone lip, and scrambled for purchase. His wings banged the tower’s edge before Raeda grabbed his arm to steady him. Blood bloomed through the knees of his robes.

“You’re too clumsy for this, Djonn,” she said. “You should wait up here.” Wait. On the blackening bones of Lith. No.

“What are we doing here?” he asked.

“You need a treasure, right?”

Djonn nodded. His message bird landed on his shoulder and poked at his ear, demanding food. He obliged, absently.

“Then you must go where the center isn’t grown out, way down, where no one comes to salvage.” She said it matter-of-fact and held her arms out. Lith.

“How did you know?” They stood far below the occupied city.

“Heard my uncle talk about it once with my gran.”

Djonn frowned. His father had helped her uncle with a gambling debt, but the price had been steep.

“What did your gran say?”

“That this place is very old. People died here when the tower cracked. There are ghosts.” Djonn looked around. All he saw was dead bone, rotting while the city grew past it. His knees pulsed with pain. “You can stay up here,” she said again.

He shook his head. “I broke the ticker. I’ll find something better to replace it with, or I won’t go back.”

“You broke something else, too,” Raeda said, her voice filled with regret. Djonn looked over his shoulder. His clumsy landing had bent his left wing. Two bone battens poked through the silk at odd angles. Father would skip the hanging and throw him right into the clouds.

“It’s alright,” he lied, hoping his voice wouldn’t break. “Maybe we’ll find something to patch them with downtower.”

Raeda watched him. She’d seen Djonn’s brothers yank him back from near-disastrous falls. Heard them laugh at how clumsy he was and threaten to tether him like a baby, so they could reel him up. Djonn looked away from the pity in her eyes.

“You can send the bird, call for help.”

He shook his head. “Let’s go,” he said, determined not to trip or stumble in front of her. His broken wing dragged behind him with a skittering sound.

He uncoiled the ladder and looked for something to tie it to. The uneven roof presented cracks and rough spurs, but he didn’t think it would hold two climbers.

Raeda saw it too. “You go down. I’ll hold the rope. Then I’ll fly down.”

“How far?”

She shrugged. “Ladder won’t reach more than four tiers.”

Djonn thought about the clouds. About his brothers, the ticker, his broken wing. “We should go farther.”

Raeda grumbled. “Would be faster if you stayed up top.”

“No.”

The tower creaked and groaned as he climbed down the ladder’s knots. He passed tier after blackened tier. Each smelled worse than the ones before. But Raeda was right, the central core hadn’t grown out. Among the tossed and broken walls of the living quarters he passed, Djonn saw shadows piled high.

“This is good enough,” Raeda said at the eighth tier.

“It isn’t,” he answered and lowered the rope again. Her stories always began long, long ago. They argued until they’d descended sixteen tiers.

“Lower than our great-grandparents,” he whispered. His calves and shoulders throbbed.

“Much,” Raeda agreed.

Lower and darker. Tendrils of cloud curled over the tier’s dark bone floors. Something rattled in the shadows. Only a bird, Djonn thought. We’ll get the treasure and get out.

Raeda spoke, not looking at him. “Do you know a story called ‘bone forest’?”

He shook his head. Focused on her words, rather than listening for sounds from the tower.

“My gran knew it. She’d lost everything but the story’s name by the time I knew her. I thought maybe your brothers—since they go to the markets.”

“What’s a forest?”

“Dunno.”

Raeda, distracted by the lost story, fell silent. She walked across the filthy floor. Djonn watched her feet, lost in their whispers. When she stepped on a goose-sized pile of feathers, dry bones cracked. Raeda cried out once and fell to her knees. A splintered goose rib pierced her left footwrap.

Djonn looked around for help. Lith, he remembered, held only ghosts. Then he knelt beside Raeda. He placed his hand flat against her heel and tugged at the splinter. She bit her lip and stayed silent. Djonn pulled again and the splinter came loose. Raeda lay down with her foot raised above her head.

“Bad luck,” Djonn said. His voice cracked. “We’ll get help now.” His bird shifted on his shoulder.

“No. Get your treasure, then we’ll send the bird.” Raeda’s voice wavered. “Look,” she pointed. Something glinted on the floor beyond her reach, under layers of dust and grime.

Djonn bent to brush at the dust. His fingers touched cold metal, a bone handle. A knife. Father had many knives.

He stepped over it. Brushed at the dust beyond with his fingers. Uncovered small bones, knobby and jumbled, then long bones, bigger than his arm. A pile of curved bones and tiered bones. Djonn cleaned off the last of them and realized they’d make a grown man, though the skull was missing. He yelped.

His message bird startled and flew away. Djonn cursed after it, and at his own clumsiness.

Raeda crawled over. “Sat down and died, looks like. No one around to throw him over the edge.”

“What happened to his head?”

“A bird took it for the eyeballs, like as not,” she made a gnashing sound with her teeth and Djonn paled.

“Aw, Raeda!” He felt sick and bent over, his back turned to her. He stared at the tower’s dark wall, not really seeing anything. Stared at the dark shadow against the wall for a heartbeat, two. Then he blinked. Rust-rimed metal, a bone handle on the lid, half hidden by rags and piles of rotting feathers. “Oh,” he whispered.

Raeda followed his glance and whistled. “Look what we found.”

She crawled faster than he could scramble, and beat him to it. She fingered the rusted latches, then rubbed them with scourweed pulled from a pocket of her robe. A shadow passed by the tower. Another bird, Djonn thought. Long-sealed hinges squealed as the box’s top swung open. Inside was more metal than Djonn had seen in his life. Long pieces of it, sharp at the ends. Short bits, clawed bits, a long strip with symbols like the ticker. He’d seen Father hold one of the clawed things, once. Saw him cradle it like a bird, call it a tool, the rarest kind of treasure. There were nails too, plenty of them. Metal needles. And a strange two-legged thing with a piece of charcoal clamped to one leg. He snatched that from the box before Raeda slammed the lid down.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Thinking.” She sat on the box and looked out at the blue sky beyond the black tower. The sun was high in its arc now.

Djonn tried to guess Raeda’s thoughts. He wasn’t sure what to think himself, except that she sat on his treasure. Metal. A pile of it.

“It’s mine,” he finally said. “I gave you my wings for it.”

She looked at him a long time. “And you don’t have any way to get it out of here, do you, sad-face brokenwings?” Djonn’s brothers called her that, when they thought she couldn’t hear. She rose, favoring her heel, and pulled at the box handle. The contents rattled. “It’s too heavy to fly.”

“We have to try,” Djonn said with a screech. “It’s mine.”

“And what is mine, Djonn?” Raeda’s chin tilted up. Djonn nearly whispered “What could you possibly want?” because his mother had said it to him so often, but he knew. Raeda wanted to leave. With the box and his wings, she’d be free. Djonn wanted to say, “Yes, take me with you,” and “No, you can’t,” all at the same time. His fingers tightened around the tool that held the charcoal. One leg ended in a sharp point.

“You have your wings. Help me get this back home and I’ll give you some of what’s inside.”

She shook her head slowly. “I’m not going back. I’ll make my own luck in the city, somewhere your father and my uncle can’t find me.” She had the box open again and began picking through the metal.

A shadow, backlit by the sun and bright sky, fell over her. “That’s exactly what you won’t be doing.”
A man stood on the ledge, furling his dark wings. He cracked his knuckles and stared at the box, and at both of them. “Uncle,” Raeda whispered.

• • • •

Despite her uncle blocking the light, Djonn could see Raeda’s face. Her eyes narrowed and she looked from Maru to the box and back. Any hope Djonn had that this was a rescue evaporated.

“Been watching you, Rae,” Maru said. He jerked his chin at Djonn. “Boy’s dad says you haven’t brought in near enough salvage lately. Been putting a lot of pressure on me. So I saw you launch that bird.”

Djonn’s mouth formed an “o.” Father’s story about helping Raeda was a lie. Still, Maru was a way out. Djonn could make a deal.

“Help us get the box back,” Djonn said, speaking forcefully, like his father would. “And my father will forget your debt, I know it.”

Maru laughed. “Boy, you don’t know your father. Let’s see what you found.”
He eyed the box and whistled like Raeda had. “The whole tower saw you two fly off, Rae,” he muttered. “Won’t be long before half the city is searching Lith for treasure. What else did you find?”

“Only that. And him,” Raeda pointed at the skeleton. “And this,” she raised the knife, pointed towards her uncle.

“Ingrate girl,” Maru growled. He lunged for Raeda and she dodged, but kept her grip on the box. The box slowed her, and he knocked the knife to the ground. It skittered on the floor, stopping at Djonn’s feet.

Djonn looked at the knife, remembering the times his brothers had taken bone knives away from him. “You’d kill yourself with something that sharp,” they’d laughed.

Maru grappled with Raeda and stepped hard on her hurt foot. She howled and crumpled. He dragged her up with one arm, her hand pinned behind her, against her furled wings. He reached for the box.

Djonn wrapped his fingers around the knife while Maru wasn’t looking.

“You’re not worth much, you lying sack of bones,” Maru hissed at Raeda. He spun on Djonn, who barely managed to hide the knife in his robes, next to the pointed tool. “And you, you wingbroken fledge. Your father and brothers have taken the lifeblood of half my people. What should be done with you?”

Djonn thought for two heartbeats. “You have to let us go. People will come, they’ll see. You said so yourself.”

“They’ll see what? A broken-winged boy. Maybe that’s something your father will take as full payment.”

Bad to worse. Djonn wrapped his hand around the knife.

Maru swung the box of metal and Raeda towards the tower ledge. “Can’t fly with both,” he laughed, and changed his grip on the girl.

Djonn’s heart pounded now-yes-now. He rushed Maru, blade held as Raeda had, all his weight behind the knife.

Maru heard him coming. He dropped the box, grabbed Djonn’s arm and squeezed. The knife clattered to the ledge, wobbled, and flipped. It fell end over end towards the clouds. Djonn whimpered.

Maru pinned Djonn’s hand by his shoulder blade, as his brothers did. Raeda shouted as her uncle turned once again to hold her out over the ledge.

Djonn’s other hand shot out from his robes on its own, holding the tool with charcoal and the sharp point. He didn’t think. He drove the point hard into Maru’s ear until he heard a crack. The man dropped to the floor, thrashing, and Raeda fell, catching herself by one hand on the ledge.

Djonn dove to the floor and clasped her hand. “I won’t drop you,” he said.

Maru kicked behind them once more and stopped. Djonn pulled hard while Raeda scrambled and, soon, they both knelt on the ledge. In the distance, Djonn could see flyers headed towards Lith: four pairs of yellow wings still high in the sky. His father and brothers.

Djonn drew a deep breath and opened the box. Picked out five sharp tools and one metal strip. Held them out to Raeda.

“Go fast. Before they come.”

Her eyes widened. She straightened her yellow robes and secured the tools in a hidden pocket. She put her hand out, and pulled him up to standing. “Thank you for catching me,” she said. She took a hesitant step forward on her injured foot, then another, until she limped across the tier to a ledge on the far side of the tower’s circumference. She leapt from the edge, snapping her gray wings open at the last minute.

Djonn bent to pull the weapon from Maru’s ear. The tool wasn’t meant for that. He could tell.

By the time Djonn’s father and brothers landed, he’d figured out what the tool was for: drawing circles. He’d traced small and large circles on the dark bone floor, the charcoal invisible against the rotting tower.

He tucked the tool away in his robes and showed his father the metal box. He showed him the skeleton.

“Box was too heavy for him. Dragged him down.”

Djonn’s father clasped his shoulder. “And Raeda?” one brother asked. His other brothers looked around the dark tier, at the dead man, at Djonn, who stood with one foot on the box. Djonn peered over the ledge, to the clouds below, counted three calm heartbeats, then met their eyes for five more.

“I couldn’t hold her,” he said.

He watched them shift uncomfortably, caught between him and the clouds.

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Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde by Steven Gould

Fran Wilde is the Andre Norton and Compton Crook Award-winning and Nebula-nominated author of Updraft and its sequel Cloudbound (September 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Shimmer, and her novella, The Jewel and Her Lapidary, was published by Tor.com in May 2016. Fran writes nonfiction and essays for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and iO9.com and interviews authors, editors, and agents about the intersection of food and fiction at the Cooking the Books podcast. You can find her online at franwilde.net & Twitter: fran_wilde.