Star of wonder, p.16

Star of Wonder, page 16


Star of Wonder

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The Tenth Lady

  In the center of the forest clearing, ten white-garbed young women danced. Two by two, they spun and posed, ducked and wove, four pairs cavorting around the perimeter of an invisible circle but careful never to intrude upon the space of the final, perfectly matched set. Hands locked together, dark hair streaming out behind them, the twin princesses Sundance and Starsong of the Free Sky clan whirled one another about in a laughing, eye-blurring rotation, attended by their clanmates in this dance for a joyful day.

  Moving counter to the dancers, ten young men of Free Sky kept time with rattling sticks and stone-filled gourds or plucked chords and melodies from gut-stringed instruments, all the while leaping into the air at random, in their own expression of the dancers’ joy. Like most of their clanfolk, the dancers and musicians belonged to the human strain known as the Aelur, modified long ago with strands of feline DNA, so that furred and pointed ears poked up through manes of hair, and here and there soft-pelted faces and hands bore subtle patterns of stripes or spots. Still, as the unseen watchers of the dance could avow, the reputation the Aelur bore as some of the greater galaxy’s finest entertainers was fully deserved, and only accented by their occasionally unusual appearance.

  The music rose to a crescendo as the dancers moved ever faster in their orbits. Then, with a shout from twenty throats, it ceased.

  “Whew!” Sundance laughed, catching the towel one of the other girls tossed her and blotting sweat out of the short golden fur which covered her face and neck, then finger-combing some of the worst tangles from her mahogany-brown hair. “That was perfect! If we do it just like that for the celebration, it will be the best gift anyone could possibly bring to the baby in the manger, and we’ll win for sure!”

  “I thought it wasn’t about winning,” Starsong objected, dabbing at her own face, which gleamed in the afternoon sunlight as her sister’s did not. “It’s supposed to be about making the baby happy, isn’t it? Bringing our very best to him, because he’s the very best that ever came to us?”

  “Well, yes, of course.” Sundance shrugged. “But winning wouldn’t hurt us any.”

  “Free Sky forever!” shouted one of the boys, and others joined in, the girls trilling a high call of gladness and anticipated victory atop the shouts. With a laugh, Starsong pulled her sister into a hug, and they held one another for a long moment before separating, smiling into one another’s long, narrow brown eyes.

  “We should go,” said Sundance when the ruckus had died down. “It’s a long way to walk, and we have to be there before the sun has fully set or they won’t let us into the performing grounds. We can clean up when we get there—everyone have your gear?” A chorus of affirmatives answered her, from everyone except Starsong, who was peering doubtfully into the forest behind them. “Star? What about you?”

  “Me? What? Oh, my dress. Yes, I have it, it’s over there, and everything else I need, too.” Starsong nodded towards a thicket, on which was draped a lovely gown of deep, rich green, an embroidered bag lying on the grass nearby. “Go ahead without me, I’ll catch up.”

  “If you’re sure.” Sundance turned ceremoniously to her left. “Free Sky,” she commanded, very much in the style of her mother, Duskdance, who bore the title of queen to her clan by right of birth, personality, and because no one with two working brain cells would choose to get in her way. “We go!”

  One of the boys began to rattle his sticks together again, setting a brisk walking pace. Another added a syncopated beat to the mix, prompting a few of the girls to caper in time as they scooped their own gowns and bags into their arms. Starsong watched them out of sight, then turned back to the way she’d been looking before, pushing into the forest from the clearing where she and her friends had been practicing their dance. “Is someone there?” she called doubtfully.

  “Starsong?” The voice was that of a younger girl, startled but glad. “Is that you?”

  “Winterfur!” Starsong hurried forward to embrace the child, who had been standing doubtfully at the base of a narrow-trunked fruit tree, staring upwards. “What’s wrong?”

  “It’s my bird.” Winterfur sniffled, pointing at a branch of the tree well out of her reach, on which a flurry of feathers was momentarily visible as wings fluttered. “The one I found as just a little chick out in the field because her mother was dead, and Mama said I could bring her home and raise her, and I did. But now she got out of the house, and she flew all the way out here, and she’s up in the tree and I can’t get her down!”

  “Don’t cry, sweetheart.” Starsong used a bit of her dress’s hem to blot Winterfur’s creamy white face. “I’ll get her for you. Everything’s going to be fine. Even me, if I hurry,” she added quietly to herself, pacing around the tree to size up her botanical opponent. “Sundance and the others won’t be too far ahead, I should still be able to catch up with them…”

  Catching hold of the tree’s lowest branch, she used it to lever herself up against the trunk, then clambered into the higher branches, approaching the half-tamed bird warily, her movements clearly visible through the leafless limbs. After a few moments of coaxing, to which the bird seemed disinclined to respond, Starsong brightened and reached into the small pouch at her waist, extracting a fragment of bread. Crumbling it between her fingers, she sprinkled the crumbs along the branch, leaving a sizable pile in her palm, and waited.

  The bird hopped forward, turning first one eye, then the other, on the crumbs before beginning to peck at them. Starsong quivered with impatience, but held herself as still as a statue. One wrong move here could mean spooking the bird further back along the branch, or even into a different tree altogether.

  At last the little bundle of brown feathers and nerves placed first one sharp-clawed foot, then the other, onto Starsong’s fingertips, and leaned forward to help herself to a few of the crumbs piled before her. Starsong brought her other hand swiftly around for the catch, waking a cheer from Winterfur, on the ground below. The descent from the fruit tree, though complicated by the need to hold the fluttering, cheeping bird safely, was accomplished more quickly than the ascent had been, and the princess of Free Sky handed her young friend her pet with a sigh of relief.

  “There,” she said, bending to kiss Winterfur between her ears. “Now, I have to run. We’re celebrating the baby in the manger tonight, you know.”

  “Yes, I know.” Winterfur stroked her bird’s feathers dotingly. “Thank you for helping me, Starsong!”

  After hurrying back to the clearing to collect her belongings, Starsong set out on her way, coming after a few minutes to the semi-permanent encampment her clan had erected for the winter. The hides which comprised their usual tents had been laced around square wooden frames instead of their usual bent sticks, and some families had even chosen to build themselves stronger shelters from the winter winds out of stone or wood or both.

  Outside one of these, a pair of adult Aelur were standing, scowling in opposite directions.

  “Oh, dear,” Starsong murmured when she saw this, and hesitated visibly before trotting over to them. “Is the door open, aunt?” she said with careful Aelur formality to the woman, who acknowledged her with a frosty nod. “Could I be of assistance?”

  “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything.” The woman, her rich brown hair cut to curve neatly under her earlobes, cast a furious look over her shoulder at the man. “But since you’re here, you may tell your uncle Nightsinger that he’s a bone-headed, thick-fingered, clumsy oaf of a dog who hasn’t got enough brains to remember what he’s told from one day to the next!”

  Starsong stepped back a pace from the flow of invective, but then shrugged, sighed, and loped around to face the man. “Aunt Killdeer says you’re being stupid again,” she reported.

  “You may tell your aunt Killdeer,” said Nightsinger, tidying his mussed mop of black hair without lowering his golden eyes from the horizon, “that she’s a picky-minded, finicking, modernistic technology addict who has no right to comment on m
y brains, since she can’t even remember what she has and hasn’t told her husband.”

  Starsong returned to Killdeer’s side of the line. “Uncle Nightsinger says you’re being stupid too,” she informed the older woman.

  “I most certainly am not.” Killdeer hissed between her teeth. “I told him three weeks ago that we’d need to alter our course to account for a private performance on the world of Buonarroti, that the twin princesses Elena and Gabriela had specially requested us to perform for the royal family’s Christmas!”

  “She says she told you about this,” Starsong called out to her uncle, moving to a neutral position between the two. “Did she?”

  “She did not.” Nightsinger growled under his breath. “Nor did she put it into the log of the Wild Rover, which is the proper procedure for an alteration in the planned course of the ship! Though Buonarroti isn’t too far off our usual course for this time of year,” he added more thoughtfully. “And we’ve performed privately for the royals there before, and may again.” Snapping back into his foul mood, he glowered. “But still.”

  “He says you never adjusted the log,” Starsong told her aunt. “Did you?”

  “I…” Killdeer’s eyes widened. “Oh. Oh, my stars. No, I never did. I was just going to when he came onto the bridge. And I’m almost certain I told him about the message,” she shot over her shoulder, but with less venom than before, “but then we started doing something else and I never got it into the log officially.”

  “Oh, so it’s still my fault,” Nightsinger grumbled, but he was starting to smile. “Blame everything on me, just like always.”

  “Well.” Killdeer covered her mouth, but couldn’t quite disguise her satisfied expression. “You are fairly distracting.” Brushing back her hair with one furless hand, she turned to look at her husband. “I’m sorry I forgot to log the course change.”

  “I’m sorry I distracted you from logging the course change.” Nightsinger twitched one of his tall, mobile ears. “Which isn’t to say I minded what we got up to, you know…”

  “Keep the key, Aunt Killdeer, Uncle Nightsinger!” Starsong called hastily, and dashed back towards the path while the two adults disappeared into their house, the hide flap falling across the doorway behind them. “Grown-ups,” she grumbled as she picked up her pace. “They’re worse than babies! You can usually calm babies down just by talking to them, or maybe by doing something else…”

  Smiling as she thought about the baby in the manger for whom she planned to dance tonight, Starsong sang herself along her way with one of the simplest lullabies for him she knew.

  “Still, still, still,

  “The night is cold and chill.

  “The mother’s loving arms enfolding,

  “Warm and safe the child holding,

  “Still, still, still,

  “Though the night is cold and chill!”

  As she reached the end of the verse, she was just entering the village of Fire Valley, the farming clan with which Free Sky was allied. All the homes here were built of sturdy, weather-shedding materials, as suited abodes which would be used year-round and did not need to be moved to follow herds of herbivorous, bad-tempered, three-horned trison. Starsong threaded her way deftly between houses, then stopped in dismay. Ahead of her, three bright-feathered chickens were pecking at the ground.

  “Leafleaper’s hens,” she murmured aloud. “She must not have closed the pen properly, and they got out. She’s raising them so she has something special to trade at the next clan gathering, special enough that she can get the proper colors of cloth and thread to make her wedding gown as beautiful as she wants it to be…”

  With a sigh, Starsong set her own gown and bag aside and started chasing chickens, making little rushes this way and that, twitching her skirts in order to herd the gabbling, indignant hens in the direction she wanted. At last, two chickens had been safely returned to their pen, and the third was scratching at the ground just outside the door. Starsong narrowed her eyes, then leapt forward with a yell, and the squawking chicken fled into the dubious safety of her sisters’ company.

  “And stay in!” Starsong snapped the pen’s door securely shut, pressed a hand to her heart for composure, and gathered up her things once more, casting an anxious glance into the sky, where the angle of the sunlight proclaimed it still afternoon, but moving swiftly towards evening. Her unseen watchers following without effort, she made it out of the village and onto the tree-lined path once more, hurrying towards her distant goal.

  Houses and tents had vanished into the forested distance before Starsong was hailed again, this time by a woman who resembled Nightsinger, her green eyes wide with worry and her ears lying flat against her black-haired head. “Starsong, thank goodness. I thought no one would ever come this way. It’s the babies, my little ones, Finch and Sparrow, Robin and Thrush—”

  “Don’t tell me.” Starsong sighed, stopping and setting her burdens down. “Robin figured out how to unlatch the door again.”

  “That child is a marvel, or would be if she weren’t driving me mad.” Heartbud, junior healer to the conjoined clans of Fire Valley and Free Sky, raked her hands distractedly through her hair. “Prancer’s gone to the celebration to join the drummers who’ll play for the ending, so he couldn’t watch them, and I was grinding herbs for a potion so I didn’t hear anything. They were asleep the last time I checked on them, but that was so early this afternoon that they could be almost anywhere by now, and you know they think it’s funny to hide from me!”

  “I’ll help you find them,” Starsong promised, though with another worried look upwards at the angle and color of the swiftly fading sunlight. “Finch and Sparrow are only two, they won’t have gone very far. And Robin and Thrush may be four, but Thrush, especially, wouldn’t leave his little brother and sister behind. Though searching for them could still take hours, especially if they’re thinking of it as a game,” she murmured, too quietly for her aunt to hear her, but loudly enough to carry to her audience. “I wonder if there’s a way to speed this up?”

  An instant later, her eyes lit, and she strode to the center of the path and began to sing.

  “He is born, the holy Child,

  “Play the oboe and bagpipe merrily!”

  Heartbud gave a breathy little laugh, as though reproaching herself for not thinking of this sooner, and added a harmony line to the light dancing carol.

  “He is born, the holy Child,

  “Sing we all of the Savior mild!”

  Rustling began to sound from the bushes nearby, as though something large, or a number of smaller somethings, were hurrying through the branches. The woman and the girl sang on.

  “Through long ages of the past,

  “Prophets long have foretold his coming…”

  Tiny, piping voices began to join in the song, as a foursome of toddling Aelur, two distinctly larger than the others, burst out of the bushes at their mother’s side.

  “Through long ages of the past,

  “Now the time has come at last!”

  Starsong turned to her small cousins as though astonished to see them, and held out her hands, inviting them wordlessly to join her in a ring-dance. The littler two, Finch and Sparrow, ran to her without hesitation, their older siblings Robin and Thrush showing only a moment of uncertainty before being overwhelmed by their desire to join in the game. Heartbud caught her older son and daughter’s hands in her own, completing the circle, and the sixfold group began to skip to their right, still singing.

  “He is born, the holy Child,

  “Play the oboe and bagpipe merrily,

  “He is born, the holy Child,

  “Sing we all of the Savior mild!”

  Heartbud released Thrush and Robin’s hands in order to scoop up Finch and Sparrow, one under each arm, then beckoned the older pair to follow at her heels. They glanced at one another, then shrugged and did so, accepting that their mother had won this round of the eternal game.

  “Oh, how lovely, oh, how pure,

  “Is this perfect child of heaven,

  “Oh, how lovely, oh, how pure,

  “Gracious gift to humankind…”

  Starsong let the carol trail off as Heartbud vanished around the bend in the path, her children safely corralled once again. “I love my family,” she repeated dutifully, picking up her gown and bag yet again. “I love my clan. I wouldn’t want to exchange them for anything in the world.” She sighed deeply. “But if I run into any more delays…”

  Without looking where she was going, she swung back onto the path, and collided full-length with a swiftly moving obstacle, both of them knocked backwards by the impact.

  The adult male Aelur, his head topped with a sleek swath of platinum blond, grunted as he landed hard on the dirt path, then blinked with surprise at what had felled him. “Starsong? Aren’t you supposed to be at the celebration?”

  “Daddy!” Starsong scrambled to her feet to hug her father, Suncrest. “Yes, I am, but everything keeps getting in the way. Like you!” She pretended to glare at him, but couldn’t maintain the façade for long. “What are you doing out here? I didn’t think there was anything this way except the performance grounds.”

  “Nothing except a convenient place to hide things from your mother.” Suncrest smiled, displaying a long, slender chain of gold with broad, hammered rings skillfully twisted onto it. “I was going to give her one of her gifts tonight, to celebrate not only the holiday but the anniversary of our wedding, and the family we’ve made together—” He broke off, looking down in dismay. “Except that I seem to have misplaced a part of it. Quite a substantial part, actually. Ear hoops, two bracelets, and a ring.”

  “I probably knocked them out of your hand when we smacked together.” Starsong sighed deeply. “Nothing’s going right for me today.”

  “Don’t despair, love.” Suncrest tucked the chain into his own waist pouch and got to his feet, his left leg moving a trifle stiffly, legacy of a long-ago injury. “You never can tell what’s really going right and wrong with things until a long time afterwards. Can you give me a hand looking for them, or do you have to go on ahead?”

  Starsong teetered on her toes, clearly torn, but another look at her father’s leg, which he was rubbing with a wince, decided her. “I can look for them,” she said, dropping to her hands and knees. “And here’s one already! One of the bracelets, I think.” Handing a wrist-sized ring of gold up to Suncrest, she continued her search. “Do they have a pattern on them?” she asked as she patted her hands along the ground, trusting to her fingers to find what her eyes, in the dying and tree-shaded light, might not.

  “Yes, they do.” Suncrest seated himself on a handy tree stump nearby. “Harps, like you and your sister and your mother all play so beautifully.” He lifted his hands to strum an arpeggio on an invisible instrument in his lap. “Harps on gold, is what I told the crafter when I ordered them. Rather like your special song, the first thing you ever performed onstage with your sister.” He smiled, glancing down at his daughter, then out towards the silent watchers. “In front of another pair of twin princesses, no less.”

  “That’s harps of gold,” said Starsong absently, scooping up the ear hoops and threading them onto her finger. “But I suppose it’s close enough.” Discovering the ring a second later, she added it to her collection, then pounced on the second bracelet triumphantly. “There!” Scrambling to her feet, she poured the collection into her father’s cupped hands. “Now I really do have to run!”

  “Dance well, love!” Suncrest called after her as Starsong raced away along the path, bursting out of the forest after a few moments and adjusting her pace to compensate for the low, grassy hills through which she now ran. The sun was just now touching the distant horizon, and Starsong sighed in relief to see it.

  “I’ll make it in time,” she murmured to herself. “I may not be as fresh as I like, but dancing always livens me up again. And besides, so long as nothing else slows me down, I’ll have a chance to rest before we have to go on…”

  A solitary farmhouse behind a hedge came into view even as she spoke the words, with a small figure waving its arms in distress at the gate.

  “Why can’t I learn to keep my mouth shut?” Starsong grumbled, but slowed and stopped, as road-manners called for. “Is the door open?” she said to the Aelur girl of her own age who had flagged her down. “Do you need help?”

  “The door is open, and yes, please. If you can. You look like you’re in a hurry, and probably with something much more important than me.” The girl fidgeted with the hem of her linen apron, its unbleached fabric close to the color of her facial fur, the mid-brown thread with which it was embroidered a match for her hair and the pelt of her ears and hands. “It’s just that my mother’s not feeling well today, and I promised her I’d cook her a dish of eggs, because it’s all she can eat when she feels this way. Except the only birds that are laying just now are our geese, and…”

  “Geese are mean,” Starsong finished when the girl faltered. “I know. I have to gather eggs from them at home sometimes too. They do bite pretty hard.” Restraining herself from looking up at the sun again, she smiled. “Would you like me to get the eggs for you?”

  “Would you? Really? Thank you, thank you so much!” The girl unlatched the gate hastily, beckoning Starsong through. “I’m sorry to be so cowardly,” she said, leading the way to the barnyard, where soft honks and gabbles were audible through the sides of a plank-built pen. “I’ve tried and tried not to be, but geese are big, and they’re noisy, and when they spread their wings wide they just look so terrible!”

  “Well, what are you good at?” Starsong accepted a basket from the girl, opened the door to the pen, and stepped in. “Can you hunt, or sing and play,” she continued from inside, her voice rising over the hissing of the geese, “or spin and weave and sew, or use a tripad or a computer?”

  “Oh, yes, I can do all of that. But none of it is very useful, here on the farm. Except the threadwork, but Mama can handle that for the three of us, her and me and Daddy, so long as she’s well.” The girl sighed deeply. “I wish there were something I could do other than just cooking for her and singing to her. She likes the old lullabies best, the ones she used to sing to me…”

  Half-closing her eyes, she began to croon a sad, minor-toned melody in a rich and husky alto.

  “Lullay, thou little tiny child,

  “Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

  “Lullay, thou little tiny child,

  “Bye, bye, lully, lullay.”

  Starsong stepped back out of the pen, looking rather more ruffled than she’d gone in, but with her basket now filled with large, gleaming eggs. Softly, she added a line of sweet soprano harmony to the girl’s song.

  “O sisters too, how may we do,

  “For to preserve this day

  “This poor youngling for whom we sing,

  “Bye, bye, lully, lullay?”

  “I think,” said Starsong carefully into the moment of silence before another verse could begin, “that you should go to the town of Fire Valley, and ask to speak to Lady Duskdance.”

  “The queen of Free Sky?” The girl covered her mouth in shock. “The leader of the ones who fly among the stars? Oh, I couldn’t, she’d never speak to me! I’m nobody, just a poor farm girl, Rainsong, I’m called, because my voice makes people weep…”

  “Weep for joy, maybe.” Starsong started to reach out her hand, then recollected with a start why she was there and extended the eggs instead. “Rainsong, I promise you, so long as you have your parents’ blessing, Lady Duskdance will listen to you. She might even find you a place aboard the Wild Rover, the next time it sails for the stars.”

  “How do you know?” Rainsong whispered, accepting the basket of eggs. “How can you know that?”

  “Because I’m Lady Starsong, princess of Free Sky.” Starsong nodded firmly at Rainsong’s gasp. “That’s right. Lady Dusk
dance is my mother. And she’s done something like this before, with a lot more risk involved in it.” Her lips twitched, as though the story behind these simple words amused her vastly. “As soon as your mother is well again, Rainsong, go to Fire Valley. I promise you, you won’t regret it.” She glanced up at the sun again, and stifled a curse behind her hand. The distant, glowing orb was starting to sink into obscurity behind the hills. “Now, if you’ll pardon me? Keep the key.”

  “Run as you please!” Rainsong called after her, completing the Aelur farewell, as Starsong took to her heels again. “And thank you so much, for everything!”

  Out of sight of Rainsong’s farmhouse, Starsong slowed to a walk, sighing and shading her eyes from the red-gold light of sunset. “So I won’t get to the celebration before the sun goes down,” she said with a grimace. “I might still be able to talk my way onto the performance grounds, so I’m not going to give up yet. And how could I have done anything else?” She looked over her shoulder at the people she’d left in her wake. “They needed my help.”

  Ahead of her, the path rose up to a bridge across a broad, slow-flowing river. Starsong peered first at one side of the bridge, then the other, and groaned under her breath as she saw an arm rise out of the water, beckoning to her. “How did I know?” she asked her invisible audience, and trotted to the edge of the river. “Is someone there?” she called.

  “Oh, thank goodness!” A young woman paddled into view, the white fur on her face and ears standing up in soaked spikes, several other Aelur with similar coloration dimly visible behind her in the fading light. “Could you help us? We decided to go in swimming, but then the wind came up and blew our towels away! It’s much too cold to get out and go searching for them, we’d be sure to get sick…”

  “Which way did they go?” Starsong asked, sounding more amused than resigned. “Straight up to the stars, or down to the center of the earth?”

  “No, I think it was that way.” The arm waved in the direction of a thicket of bushes a goodly distance from the riverbank. “There are seven of us, but if you can get one or two, we can find the rest ourselves. You look like you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.”

  “I’m already late.” Starsong bounded over to the thicket, and came up with the first towel in her hand. “A few more minutes won’t make any difference. And you’re right, it is too cold to run around with wet fur. Perfect weather for dancing, though.”

  “Oh, are you going to the celebration?” The young woman who’d been speaking peered at Starsong with interest. “But I thought it started at sundown.”

  “It does, but my group isn’t on until later. So I might still be all right.” Starsong draped a second and third towel over her arm. “Did anyone from your clan go this year?”

  “My cousin and her husband,” another voice called out. “They play the bird-whistle together.”

  “A boy I know from a hunting clan said he was going to do balancing tricks on a pole,” a third voice chimed in. “I wish we could have gone, but Mama doesn’t like me to be away from home so late…”

  “Four, five, six,” Starsong muttered to herself, laying three more towels across her arm, as the girls in the river chattered among themselves about mothers, their varying levels of permissiveness, and what types of persuasion they might be able to use for future events of this sort. “Almost there, come on, come on—ah-ha!” She snatched the final towel from the branch on which it had snagged and bolted back to the river’s edge. “Seven!” she announced, tossing the towels to the first young woman who’d spoken. “Good luck with your mothers!”

  “Good luck with your performance!” the young woman called after her as Starsong pounded across the bridge. “Thank you so much for stopping to help!”

  “Stopping to help.” Starsong shook her head as she lengthened her stride to cope with the rise of the hill beyond the river. “That seems to be all I’m doing today! What’s next, a plague of locusts? An invading army? Or maybe—”

  She topped the hill and halted, staring down in dismay. Blocking the path nearly as far as she could see in the last few rays of the setting sun was a herd of shaggy brown animals, grumbling together and swinging their three-horned heads back and forth, warning off a small crowd of smock-clad young women carrying three-legged stools and wooden buckets over their arms.

  “Cows.” Starsong sighed. “Why did it have to be cows?”

  One of the young women turned her head and flicked her ears in greeting, her eyes a striking golden-orange in her dark-pelted face. “I’m so sorry about this,” she said, hurrying towards Starsong. “We’re blocking your way, I’m sure, and we’ll try to keep them under control while you get around them, but they’re in a terrible mood this evening.”

  “Is something the matter?” Starsong glanced up at the sky, where a few faint stars were beginning to show in the east. “My clan’s trison calm down when it comes time for milking.”

  “Usually ours do too, but that’s because we have music for them, to guide them back to their paddock and settle them for the night. But tonight, all our musicians went to the celebration, to help with the song for the ending, and we just aren’t having any luck without them.” The young woman winced as one of her friends skipped hastily backwards, away from a bad-tempered bellow and accompanying swipe of horns. “We need to get them milked, they’ll only go on getting more miserable until we do, but that’s difficult when we can’t so much as get near them!”

  Starsong laid her bag and gown aside on a patch of grass beside the path, after checking it carefully for dung first. “Would singing to them help?” she offered. “I know a song our trison like a great deal, and if you all join in, it might be enough.”

  “Oh, if you would?” The young woman laughed in relief. “We all sing, of course, in the choruses with everyone else, but none of us are soloists, and we didn’t quite know how to start!”

  “Starting is what I do best.” Starsong moved a little to one side, settled her feet into place, and lifted her voice over the noisy, restless trison and their attendants.

  “Infant holy, infant lowly,

  “For His bed a cattle stall.

  “Oxen lowing, little knowing

  “Christ the Babe is Lord of all.”

  Snorting and blowing, the trison began to grumble themselves into quiet, and the young women with their buckets and stools hurried into the midst of the herd, each setting up beside her own favored cow as they joined their voices to Starsong’s.

  “Swift are winging, angels singing,

  “Nowells ringing, tidings bringing…”

  Surrendering to the joy of her music, Starsong lifted her arms as though proclaiming her news to the world for the first time.

  “Christ the Babe is Lord of all!”

  Softly, below, the milkers echoed her in rhythm with their work.

  “Christ the Babe is Lord of all!”

  Overhead, the stars showed themselves more clearly with every passing moment, one particularly bright one starting to gleam in the direction towards which Starsong had been traveling. Fixing her eyes on it, she continued to sing.

  “Flocks were sleeping, shepherds keeping

  “Vigil till the morning new;

  “Saw the glory, heard the story,

  “Tidings of a Gospel true.”

  Below, the dark young woman and one of her friends gently nudged the trison out of Starsong’s way, while their other companions, three on each side of the path, got on with their chores. Starsong picked up her gown and bag one more time and paced forward in time with her singing, so as not to startle the beasts.

  “Thus rejoicing, free from sorrow,

  “Praises voicing, greet the morrow…”

  Stepping out of the far side of the herd, she turned back to wave her goodbye to the milkers.

  “Christ the Babe was born for you!”

  The response came back to her like a soft, harmonic echo, farewell and thanks in one.

>   “Christ the Babe was born for you!”

  Smiling, Starsong hurried along her way once more, until a distant sound stopped her short in dismay. “Oh, no,” she breathed. “The pipers and the drummers—and they only play when the performance is over! I’ve missed it!”

  And so, as she came at last to the place of celebration, it seemed. The rough-built risers for the spectators, the sturdy stage for the performers with its outer framework of a stable, both stood deserted in the darkness, and only the faintest of lights shone on the manger which stood at the stage’s center, as befit the resting place of the one the celebration was meant to honor.

  “I’m sorry.” Starsong sank to her knees beside the stage, bowing her head before the figure of the baby in the manger, her voice quivering with the tears she couldn’t repress. “I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined everything. Sundance and the others must have had to dance without me, and now I’m here too late and all alone. I don’t even have a gift for you, and that’s not right, it’s your birthday, I should never have come here without bringing one—”

  “But you have brought a gift, child.”

  Starsong gasped and shrank back as a glowing figure appeared on the other side of the stable, a dark-haired woman with Aelur features but a suggestion of wings at her back, dressed in brilliant, shining white.

  “Do not be afraid, Starsong,” the other commanded, and Starsong pressed a hand against her heart, though she still trembled. “You and your offering have both found favor in His eyes.”

  “Offering?” Starsong shook her head, bewildered. “What offering? I don’t have anything to offer! What’s worse, I ruined the gift we wanted to give by not being here to dance, I broke my promise and let everybody down, and all because I kept stopping on the way—”

  “Stopping to help others,” interrupted the white-robed one. “To offer them loving, humble service when they needed it most. To make the lives of your family, your friends, even strangers easier and better by the work of your hands and feet and voice. Nine ladies of Free Sky danced for the Child tonight, Starsong, and He was glad of that gift as of the others. But you, the tenth lady, you have brought Him the greatest gift of all, and the one He loves most to receive. For ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’.”

  “So.” Starsong pressed her fingers to her lips. “When I brought Winterfur back her bird, when I sang the little ones home for Heartbud, when I helped Rainsong find her dream…”

  “All of that was also done for Him,” the white-robed one confirmed. “And with it, and you, He is well pleased.”

  “Thank you.” Starsong bowed her head once more. “Thank you so much!”

  When she looked up, she was alone, except for the image of the Christ Child. Again she knelt in reverence, then rose and stepped onto the stage, turning to face the audience who had been watching her journey all along. In the distance, bells began to ring, as overhead the star she had followed to this place shone more brightly. Out of the darkness, other figures appeared, figures garbed in the same brilliant white as the one to whom she had been speaking, but with the faces of her sister and the other young women of Free Sky.

  As the dancers glided into motion around her, spreading out to surround the stable with a living prayer of joy, Starsong raised her arms in invocation and lifted her voice one final time.

  “Angels from the realms of glory,

  “Wing your flight o’er all the earth;

  “Ye who sang creation’s story,

  “Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

  “Come and worship, come and worship,

  “Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

  Stepping down from her place, Starsong joined the angels’ dance, as Rainsong the farm girl in her apron and the herders of the trison in their simple smocks filed into place onstage. Rainsong took the frontmost position to sing the words, her voice soft at first but gaining confidence with every phrase, while the other girls hummed quietly behind her.

  “Shepherds, in the fields abiding,

  “Watching o’er your flocks by night,

  “God with us is now residing,

  “Yonder shines the infant light:

  “Come and worship, come and worship,

  “Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

  Falling back in their turn, the young women knelt beside the manger to adore, as Killdeer, Nightsinger, and Suncrest entered, dressed now in colorful robes and carrying small chests in their arms. They bowed low before the Child, laying down their gifts, before facing the audience to sing in a rich triple harmony of soprano, baritone, and tenor.

  “Sages, leave your contemplations,

  “Brighter visions gleam afar;

  “Seek the great Desire of Nations,

  “Ye have seen His natal star:

  “Come and worship, come and worship,

  “Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

  Now the humming of pipes and the beating of drums filled the air, as from every direction musicians converged on the little stable. Thrush and Robin walked alongside their father Prancer, “helping” him to play his shoulder-hung drum, while beside them Winterfur helped Heartbud herd along Finch and Sparrow. The girls who had been swimming in the river added themselves to the throng already kneeling beside the manger, as did the young men who had leapt for joy as they played the music for Free Sky’s dancers, and the angel who had spoken to Starsong stepped forth into the light, her features more than a little reminiscent of that young lady.

  Duskdance, queen of the clan of Free Sky, smiled at her twin daughters as they emerged from the dance of the angels to stand one on either side of her. Together, they lifted their hands, directing their clanfolk in the final verse of their hymn.

  “All creation join in praising

  “God, the Father, Spirit, Son,

  “Evermore your voices raising

  “To th’eternal Three in One!

  “Come and worship, come and worship,

  “Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

  Princesses Elena and Gabriela, of the royal family of the world of Buonarroti, were the first ones on their feet and cheering as the lights came back up aboard the show-ship Wild Rover, to allow the Aelur performers of Free Sky and Fire Valley to take their well-deserved bows. This year’s Christmas play, they would tell anyone who asked them for the next several weeks, had been the best one yet.

  They could hardly wait to see what next year would bring.

  * * * * *

  The songs quoted in this story are traditional Christmas carols, and are listed in order of appearance by title and country of origin:

  “Still, Still, Still”, Austria

  “He Is Born”, France

  “The Coventry Carol”, England

  “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”, Poland

  “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, England

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