Pearl of the Stars
IT’S BEEN THREE WINTERS since I fell from the sky. I have no memory of the descent, or the faraway place I came from. Only that it was dark, a starless void, haunted by lost echoes and tensile sounds. My first clear memory is of an invisible weight smothering me, lining my skin like burial cloth. I thought I was going to die. I remember the metallic shriek of landfall, my first breath of living air, and the way the fear drained out of me at the cautious touch of a stranger. Most of what I know about this world and my place in it I learned from my father, Lux.
He was in the vale planting seeds of barley when he saw me from afar. I came like a shooting star, passing through the emptiness of heaven, all fire and silver dust. My impact tore a hole in the adjacent pasture a hundred yards wide, and the dust rose soundlessly and swept across the sky.
A band of horseman followed the trail of fire and vapor tints. They came carrying the banner of the king, a silvery blue falcon embroidered in white thread. The knights’ armor glinted ruby in the low sun. Their hoofbeats were like distant thunder, mowing down fields of signet marigolds until a flaxen cloak of severed petals encircled them, soft and violent in the wind.
But Lux arrived first, climbed down into the crater, and found, to his astonishment, a girl child alive amid the scorched wheat. I could not speak, so he crawled through the ruins of my vessel, through the hot wreckage that smelled of planets and galaxies, metal and fire. The space-dust clung to his boots. The heat of the outer hull glazed his face with sweat, but the inner shell was cool with frost, yawning like a cracked oyster.
Stooping, he lifted me from my bed of glass, my body small and weightless in his arms, my skin like chased silver. My eyes fluttered open at his touch and glowed with an inner light. He folded me into his arms and retreated from the crater, following the gully where my vessel had burrowed through a half-plowed pasture before ending up in the sprouting wheat.
The wheat, green as grass, was not yet tall enough to hide a stolen babe, so he crossed the shallow troughs of black soil to the waterhole where he had left his plow that morning. Cradling me in one arm, he fastened his bag of seeds to his hip, wishing he had not left such large footprints inside the crater.
He knelt behind the rusted plow and wrapped me in his dirty cloak to conceal my glow. “What a pathetic concealment it was!” he’d say when recounting the story to me by a midnight fire. “An angel in rags is still an angel.” I blush, even now, thinking about it.
Hastily, he brushed the phosphorescent dust from his boots and wondered what he, a free man tending the acres he’d earned during the wars, would tell the royal knights and gilded riders. Ever since the seeress’ dying prophecy, the king had announced his sovereign claim on anything that came from the sky, but Lux, trusting neither gods nor oracles, would not let me be captured and used by any man, not even a king.
The horsemen arrived from the north, twelve armed soldiers from the kingdom Vanfell over the mountains, and at their head, flanked by six knights and six squires, the High King Sol himself. The mounted men stopped in a cloud of drifting dust and formed a wide circle around the inner crater, examining it with fearful curiosity. The king, circling the outer rim at a gallop, spotted Lux from his tall steed. Sol did not dismount to address the crouching farmer but instead called out while still some way off.
“You there, what is your name?”
“I am Lux,” he replied, bowing as best he could with a child in his arms.
“Do you tend these fields?”
“I do.” Lux leaned on his plow. “I saw an object fall from heaven, so I came to see what it was.”
One of the squires dismounted but was unable to approach the wreckage. “It’s too hot,” he called in a voice that cracked with youth.
“I went to it,” Lux admitted, knowing the king would find his bootprints. “But the heat drove me away.”
“You’re a brave man,” said the king in a voice both respectful and threatening. He urged his mount closer and stopped an arm’s length away. “And who is this?”
“This… is my daughter.” A name descended from far away, and Lux knew it was not of his own making. “My daughter, Ava.”
I can almost hear him say it, though I was little more than an infant at the time. “Father,” I whisper into the desert wind, keeping him close by the memory of his stories and his laughter. “Where are you now? Do you hate me for what I did to you?”
It is a dim, cloudy evening in winter, scarcely three years since the day my vessel destroyed my father’s fields. I am locked in a high tower on the spine of the mountains. There are no windows in my one room and no furniture other than the cushion where I sleep. By day, the tower vibrates softly with hidden machinery, and at night the ice wind whispers through cracks in mortar while I lie awake trying to touch the brittle moonlight.
Once a day, they let me walk on a circular iron balcony where I can smell the desert valley smells and taste the cactus warmth and breathe deep of the lizard sounds and the shilling-glint of butterflies. I stand there now, leaning against the metal railing and looking out over the painted desert. If only I were a butterfly. I’d spread my delicate wings and flee this high balcony—the cruel men, the sad silences, my cold and lonely room.
The tower is tall, like six or seven chimneys stacked together. I can see the city Vanfell to the north where the mountains never thaw. Behind me, the sun sets red and heatless, painting the blood elms in rapidly fading shades. But I have no desire to see these things. My eyes are only for the pulsar fields, a haze of violet and silver dust far across the dunes.
A stab of sorrow passes through me, and I try to stop from shaking. Where did they take him? Why did they take him if they only wanted me? It’s been three weeks as the sun sets. Will they ever let me go?
“That’s enough.” A stern voice catches me from behind, startling me. “Come inside.”
I obey, saying nothing, not even looking at the guard’s face.
“The Lord of the Citadel is not pleased,” the guard says. “We know who you are, witch, and where you came from. You can’t hide the truth behind your unnatural age.”
The truth? I think, saying nothing.
“He sent us looking for a child of four years, he did,” the guard says. “And here you are, a girl grown.” He removes his glove and slides his fingers across my cheek and shoulder, then tilts my chin up to look at him, watching my eyes. “You are something else, aren’t you? The question is, what?”
I try to turn away, but he squeezes my jaw, his thumbnail digging into my skin. I grit my teeth and grab his wrist with both hands.
He stoops closer and holds out his torch as if wanting to burn me with it. “What is the secret of the pulsar fields?”
“I don’t know,” I plead, shutting my eyes from the heat.
“Where does its power come from?” he growls, wrenching me forward by my mouth until I am standing on my tiptoes.
“What did you do with my father?” I ask defiantly.
He grunts through a bored half-smile and releases me suddenly. “We’ll have more questions tomorrow,” he says, closing the iron door to the balcony and turning the key. “We have been patient. Do try to remember this time, for your sake.”
He withdraws by a different door and locks me in. I sit huddled on my cushion, hugging myself as the light goes out. I curl up and lie down and wait until tomorrow. My slim white gown is not much against the night cold, but I have never been troubled by the climate of Alta. Hot and cold never bothered Father, so they never bothered me. I lie unmoving for a long time, listening for the wind and pressing my fingers against a crack in the wall, the tower’s icy vein.
The worst part of captivity is being trapped and remembering how it felt to be free, sitting alone for hours with only the jailer’s sporadic visits to look forward to. I felt a connection when walking the fields. It was fleeting, sometimes present, sometimes as distant as my true home. But many nights, gazing up, I saw glimpses of where I came from in the evanescent light of falling stars. There is danger and freedom in the night, the vast, unreachable sky overhead, the cool sand between my toes. Above all I miss my father, Lux. It’s my fault that he’s gone. All mine. If I’d known that my walks would condemn him, I would have bound my feet in irons.
The pulsar fields came after I did, connecting us. No one was allowed to enter, on pain of death, though some did, those with hearts for adventure or rebellion. I had my own reasons, and ever since I could crawl, I was drawn to the fields as a caged bird to the sky, or a wolf, tortured by the moon. The wreckage of my cocoon was long cleared away, but I would often go to the spot in the secret hours of the night to be alone with my joy and longing, which were one and the same.
Lux would not stop me. In taking me in, he spared me from the abhorrent fate of experimentation and slavery that Sol and the cruel lords of Vanfell would have subjected me to. But regardless of the risks, he would never forbid me going to those fields, the only piece of home I knew. Now I wish he had. I wish he had chained me up and let me scream day and night. I wish he had starved me and beaten me rather than let me risk both our lives. Did I know what I was doing? I’d like to think I was ignorant and innocent, a daring girl with stardust in her eyes, but perhaps not.
The Pulsar Fields
I AM DREAMING again, always of home. I dream of herbs and cactus broth in the morning. Of ripe peppers and sunberries growing by the stream. Of ornery goats and an old cow we never named.
“Where does the stream come from?” I ask my father, cupping cold water in my hands.
“The forest heart,” he replies, washing the dirt from his face. “My sister sent it to us. Such a stream would be valued beyond diamonds in this dry land.”
“If only we had neighbors to share it with.”
He laughs and wrings the water from his beard. “Oh Ava, you know I saved all my kindness for you.”
Sometime later, in the way of dreams, we climb to the roof and watch the midnight fire, the lights that dance in the heavens when the night is darkest. Blue and gold, green and violet—we stay up all night watching the rainbow tints drift like curtains in a celestial breeze. Father tells me stories of when he fought in the wars, of the maidens he saved and lost. He looks up and holds the moon in his eyes and strokes my black hair and tells me how beautiful I am and how fast his little girl is growing up. I fall asleep in his arms.
Afterwards, he helps me down and puts me to bed, humming an old heroic ballad, protecting me from nightmares with the deep tremors of his voice, even as the first light of dawn comes slanting through our kitchen window. Then he goes out to tend the garden and milk the goats.
A torch flares to life in the hallway, startling me out of my dream. I stir awake, far from home, far from my father. Orange light flickers through the bars in my door, chasing away the moonlight, nearly reaching my bare feet. I wait in my cold cell, wondering what this could mean.
The lock turns and a small figure steps through the opening, closing the door behind him. It’s a boy, hardly more than a child. I hop to my feet and we stare at each other for a long moment as if expecting recognition. Then he bends stiffly and sets his torch on the floor. He must be terrified. I want to go to him and hug him and cradle his curly dark head and hold his soft hands and tell him everything will be all right. And yet something stops me, an involuntary suspicion. How did he get here? Why isn’t there a guard to escort him? I try to smile.
“Hi, little one,” I say in what I hope is a voice of welcome.
He sits down by the torch and stares up at me, unblinking.
“Are you a prisoner?” I ask, wondering if this is some new trick of the tower lord.
He blinks once, but no more, studying me. The torchlight flickers in his ocean gray eyes. I inch closer and sit across from him, brushing my hair behind one ear. “I’m Ava. What’s your name?”
“Hello, Ava,” his voice is soft and sure for one so young. “I have come to save you.”
I stare back, astonished.
“Are you ready to leave?”
“We can’t leave,” I reply like a mother, though less sure now that I hear the conviction of this boy. “Who are you?”
“I am Oberon.”
“How did you get here, Oberon?”
“Through the fields.”
“You’ve been to the fields!”
Oberon nods pleasantly and I catch glimpses of his many tattoos. Now that I’m closer I notice distinct patterns of blue ink deep in his skin. The patterns cover his arms, legs, chest, and face. At this point, I am not sure whether I see more ink or skin. I do not recognize the patterns, nor can I read the runes. Aside from brown trousers torn off at the knees, he is naked.
“Are you ready to leave?” he asks again.
“I am,” I whisper, my voice faltering. “I mean, of course I am! I’m just scared.”
“Do not be afraid.”
“I can’t help it. The way you walked in here like a ghost, it’s unsettling.”
“I’m sorry, Ava.”
“I shouldn’t be so easily frightened,” I say, edging closer as if to tell a secret. “I don’t know what these men want with me. They ask so many questions.” I lean back on my hands. “They were hesitant at first, like they were afraid of me. But they grew bolder, asked who I was, where I came from, and why I was found trespassing. They think I know something about the fields, that I can do things when I’m there, powerful things. I don’t know how to answer. I just hope they’ll realize they’re wrong, that I’m really nobody.”
“Do you believe that?” Oberon asks.
“I don’t know,” I sob suddenly. “They haven’t hurt me, but they scare me sometimes. Do you know what they want?”
“You should follow me, Ava,” the boy says, rising suddenly and turning his back, which is as tattooed as the rest of him.
This time I make out an image in the tribal markings. A fierce lion, its face as wide as his back, its mane glowing, seems to be leaping out at me. The jaws move, smiling and snarling, and the eyes blaze—or is it only a trick of the firelight?
He leads and I follow. He moves at a quiet, confident pace, seeming unafraid and sure of the way. He opens my door somehow and follows the corridor left. I hurry after him, glancing from side to side. He did not bring the torch, but I see well in the dark, better than in daytime, better even than my father, who can see a lizard hatchling skimming the dunes a quarter mile off.
“Where are we going?” I whisper.
Oberon tiptoes down a corridor, opens a seemingly locked door, and descends the stairs like a stalking mongoose. He holds me near the bottom as a torch flickers past. Once the eerie footsteps recede, he leads on, and I hurry as quickly and as quietly as I can. We descend multiple stories, always swiftly with a few strategic pauses along the way. He signals for me to stop near a locked door as thick as a table.
He glances back at me, smiles and touches the door. It opens with no more than a nudge, the bolt sliding aside. I follow, speechless. This boy must be a wizard of some kind. I’ve heard stories of air walkers and elementalists, and those who bend fire and light, and those who speak to animals or become them. The stories, some told by Father, some by travelers seeking shelter from a desert storm, always contain whispers of adepts, the strongest of all wizards, one with nature, who can reshape the stuff of the world just by imagining it. Could this boy be one of those? Why would he want to help me?
Most of the guards are asleep at this hour, and we pass unhindered through a back door and into the cool night. Oberon stops suddenly and pulls me into a ravine as a sentry circles high above. When the man disappears, we make our way down the mountain under the cover of darkness, never hurrying, but making good time. Part of me wants to cry for joy, but I dare not while still in earshot of the watchtower. Oberon is leading me home. He does not stop until we are several dunes away and deep in a recess—invisible to any searching eyes on the tower.
“It is fifty miles more from here,” he says, sitting in the sand and burying his toes and fingers. “The forest.”
I sit beside him, panting, trying to slow my hummingbird heart. “You know where I live?”
Again, he smiles, perhaps unsure of what to say. Then, as if reading the appropriate response from an index of body motions, he shrugs. “Are you hungry?”
I shake my head. “They feed me before bed.”
He nods gratefully. “You may ask your questions now.”
Stunned by his manner, I hesitate, unsure of what to say. He simply looks at me as if examining a pretty rock, disinclined to ever look away. He, unlike me, seems totally unaffected by the escape. His chest rises evenly, his breaths soft despite the steep dunes we climbed.
“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you know I was a prisoner in the tower?”
“I am Oberon. I always know where you are.”
I am not sure if his response makes me feel better or worse.
“Ava?” he senses the worry in me and wants to make it go away.
“Who were they, my captors?”
“They serve Agon, Lord of the Citadel, a sworn lord to King Sol and the protector of the outlands south of Vanfell. He was ordered to find you and take you to the king.”
“Why didn’t he?” I ask the most obvious question. “Why didn’t Agon take me to Vanfell?”
“Agon knows that the fields can be used for personal gain, if one can master them. That’s why he captured you and kept you, sending word to the king that you had escaped into the forest.”
“But the penalty for walking the fields is death,” I say.
“It was, in the beginning. But one moon ago Sol had a dream about the day he claimed the fields for Vanfell and saw you and your father with you.”
“I know the story,” I say.
“The image of your innocent face deeply troubled him as he pondered the prophecies. You were fairer, he knew, than any noble child he had ever seen, and he wondered if perhaps you were more than a farmer’s daughter after all. That’s why he sent his sworn lord and his soldiers to the fields to look for you. Agon expected a child of four years. Still, on seeing you, despite your appearing as a teenager, he had no doubts: he had found whom the king sent him for.”
“And yet he did not take me to Vanfell but to his watchtower?”
“Agon thinks you are the key to mastering the pulsar fields.”
“He would betray his king and use me for his wars?”
“Humans are capable of tremendous evil,” Oberon says sadly. “We both know this, Ava.”
“You speak as if they are something other than us.”
“Are they not?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “All I know is I’m not the one they’re looking for. I don’t have powers. I can’t control the pulsar fields. I can’t give them what they want.”
“Perhaps,” Oberon says, looking at the night clouds.
“It’s my fault,” I say. “I was selfish to go so often into the fields. It’s my fault my father was taken away.”
Oberon looks at me sadly, but it might be better to say he looks into me. “I see your heart and it is not cruel, Ava. Only lost and full of yearning.”
“Why did you come to the tower to set me free?”
“Because it was a wrongness to keep you there,” he says meaningfully.
“How old are you?”
“I am three years in the world.”
“You don’t act like it,” I say, trying to understand how naivety and wisdom can coexist so seamlessly. “Are you from the stars?”
“No,” he says simply. “My home lies elsewhere.”
I sit for a while longer and look at him looking at me. The air is cooling quickly with the night. The life that seems scorched to death during the day is coming out, and I close my eyes to enjoy the chirping of insects and the soft scurrying of burrowing mammals over moonlit sand. When I open them, Oberon is still watching me.
“My father—” I breathe, unable to repress my shudders. “He told me how I fell from the sky, how he found me in the silver ship. He would never keep a secret from me. He called me his pearl of the stars and made it clear it wasn’t just a metaphor, he meant it. But somehow I always thought I was still… human. Do you know what happened to him?”
“He is beyond my sight. They took him to Vanfell.”
“To be executed!” My heart beats helplessly in my chest.
Oberon says nothing. He does not know.
“Can you rescue him like you did me?”
Again, Oberon is silent, thinking. His face is that of a nine-year-old boy, but his eyes tell of depths and distances beyond imagining. “Your father’s spirit is shrouded from my sight. He may no longer be in the city.”
“Did he escape? Could it be?”
“I do not know.”
I nod tearfully. I want to help my father and can’t. The city is so far. Oberon could take me there, couldn’t he? But what for? The journey would take days, and we’d have to hide from every passing troop and caravan. What good could I do if Father is already gone? “What do we do now?” I ask, looking to this child for guidance.
He remains sad, as if escape for my father would mean something worse than death. “If you’re rested, we will walk,” he says. “Will you walk with me, Ava?”
I get up, standing a little taller than Oberon, resisting the urge to hold his hand as a mother might. It would be strange, holding a young boy’s hand and knowing that he is not what he seems to be, that he, perhaps, is older than the moon and all the stars in the night sky, older than darkness or light.
I hold his hand anyway and am comforted by it. It is so warm, a little smaller than my own hand. We walk in the moonlight, two lost children, barefoot in the desert, not sure who we are. Oberon is very quiet. I have so many questions for him. Where does he come from? Does he already know everything about me, or does he burn with curiosity, too full of questions to even know where to begin?
We ride the dunes deep into the night and rest in a hollow in a cluster of rocks at dawn. Oberon does not sleep, but instead keeps watch while I dream in the shade. When it is evening, we set out again, speaking little, the setting sun at our backs. The new night is clear as a dish of summer rain, a crescent moon rising.
I catch glimpses of the pulsar fields as we walk, and something warms inside me at the sight of the swirling vapor and dust. When we are on the outskirts and my heart is near to bursting with excitement, Oberon stops on a rocky ledge, standing stiff like a guard dog, or a devoted jackal. “They are watching,” he says. “Sol’s men patrol the fields.”
“You don’t have to take me home,” I say to him, not sure why. “You’ve done so much already.”
“I will take you all the way,” he says. “I will protect you until we find your father.”
I cannot argue with him. His presence makes me feel too young to have any opinion worth voicing. We pass with care into the valley by a hidden gorge and enter the place where the desert sands turn to silver dust and the winds do not come from any direction in the world, but from outside it. We are over the edge and inside the pulsar fields.
“Won’t the soldiers see us?” I ask, scared, even though it is dark, and the night is our protection.
“They will not.”
We keep walking until nothing outside is visible. Only the swirling air, a little colder than desert air and a little warmer. Stars float like sparks in the air and portals to other worlds gather and scatter on the verge of my perception. I feel weightless in some places and heavier in others. My gown clings to my skin, but I cannot feel it. I smell the icy maze of space and the distant blush of fading flowers in bloom.
Oberon looks around, his curly hair wild in the ethereal wind, his eyes like knife tips, the ink in his skin gleaming. He is remembering. Then he turns to me, and asks, “What do you remember from your life before your vessel created the pulsar fields?”
I close my eyes. “Nothing. I remember nothing. All I know is what Father told me—how I fell from the sky in a blaze of fire and dust, and how he found me unharmed and raised me as his own on the edge of the fields.”
“The fields only formed after you came here,” Oberon says thoughtfully, smiling like a philosopher who has just proved God. “That’s when I came into the world, sent forth by the Great Spirit to complete a focus. I do not know to what purpose I was created, but only that when I’m with you I no longer feel the need to travel, to move, to leave and forget. I can be still and close my eyes and not feel idle. I do right to be here.”
“I’m glad you’re here, Oberon.”
“It all aligns in my mind—the geometry of chance—you falling into the world, me thrust into it, all in the same moment. It must mean our fates are intertwined.”
“It must,” I say, trusting him, but thinking other thoughts. “Do you think Sol still has my cocoon? If only we could see it and study it! Maybe I could learn from it.”
“It is in Vanfell. I can take you there.”
“That’s where Father might be?”
“I do not know where he is.”
“The last thing he said to me was to run into to the forest and find his sister. I hardly know her, and I didn’t want to leave him. He meant to fight them off. But I never made it, and that means he didn’t either. Maybe, if he escaped Vanfell, he would go to the forest looking for me.”
“It would be a desperate hope. I suspect he knows you were captured.”
I swallow painfully. “That would only make him suffer more.”
“You know him best, Ava,” Oberon says. “I will help you along whatever path you choose.”
I close my eyes, stilling the storm inside. “Please take me home.”
“As you wish, Ava.”
“I know it’s far, but not nearly so far as Vanfell.”
Oberon looks thoughtfully around. “The fields could hasten our travel.”
“The fields? How?”
“Come, Ava. I will teach you,” he says, offering his hand.
I reach out… and suddenly the whole landscape vanishes, and it is just him and me standing on the sky’s sinuous abdomen looking down at mountains. Don’t let go. I hear his voice in my head.
The air seems smoky and dark. The violet is so deep it’s almost black. The stars flutter and spark like pieces of burning paper. They swirl around us as we sidestep through a fold in the fabric of space. An expanse appears under a sky with no sun, and we stand on the edge of a thing like a valley, though there are many features that I do not recognize. Somehow, without words, Oberon is showing me what he is doing, how he is manipulating the energy in the fields. Could I do the same one day?
How far across the fields? I ask his spirit. A day’s journeying?
There is no distance anymore, he responds, and I can almost see his quiet smile. There is no distance and no time.
The strange sunless landscape vanishes, and we appear, perfectly whole, on the edge of the forest, the fields behind us, and to my astonishment, the remains of my cabin only a few yards off.
“Oberon, that was amazing!” I gasp, staggering, dizzy. “We traveled!”
“We did,” he smiles proudly, looking back at the fields we just passed through.
I check to make sure my arms and legs still fit right. Everything is as it should be. Then I remember where I am and sniff the air, wrinkling my nose. Oberon, noticing the soot and ashes, puts a hand on my shoulder.
The forest stands silvery-fertile in the moonlight. The sounds are familiar, as is the stream where Father and I used to collect water. But there are no signs of animals, and all that is left of my old home is these ashes. On first seeing the destruction, I was too dazed from our journey through the fields to think. Now I stop and stare, standing very still, my bare toes pressing down on the blackened spine of a book. I reach down and pick it up, and as I do, ashes, trapped between the folds of unburned paper, spill out and flutter downwind. The air makes them look alive, the ashes. But it is a mockery of real life. They move like bad actors in a burned down theater, and do not speak, having forgotten all their lines.
I walk amid them, touching the remains of a table leg, stumbling on a pot, putting my hands into the burnt out fireplace. The rest is unrecognizable. I cannot resist the tears. They come, romancing me, not in a flow, or in violent sobs, but in soft lines down my cheeks. Nothing stops their fall.
“Could you take me away from here, Oberon?” I ask, trembling. “Are there other worlds better and brighter than this one? Worlds where girls do not lose their fathers? Worlds where nobody kills anybody else, and nobody burns things?”
“There are such worlds,” Oberon nods hesitantly.
“Could we live there together?” I whisper desperately, foolishly, knowing it is my own childishness speaking. “Could we run and never look back?”
“I can take you anywhere, Ava.”
I wipe my eyes, beautiful with grief, not for the house, or for the things in it, but for the memory of my father, who touched the things, and fixed them when they broke, and dusted them, and loved the walls he built, and the books on the walls, and who taught me to read and to sing and to love the stars. I miss the father who cursed at the goats when they were noisy and sang to them when they were sick, who terrified strangers, who sheltered me, smothered me, hoarded me like a dragon’s only treasure until my one wish was to get away, far, far away, and make my own life like the heroines in stories. It is not that, now that he’s gone, I do not see his faults. It’s that now they’ve never looked so precious.