By C.A. Rose
played his pipes and slept a sky worm to save the
village. This happened at The Churning, when mile wide
ribbons of colored air, usually high in the sky, came to
the ground bringing air creatures.
And sky worms.
Now Greeley was
the village piper but The Churning hadn’t come in years
and years and might never come. He didn’t like
practicing the complex tunes. If only he could leave
this farming colony and become a Cirrus knight. Then
he’d be important.
wheezy old Thom, his grandfather and the piper before
Father, were canceled today. On their annual pilgrimage,
the men of the village tromped to the mountaintop to
pray to the Goddess to keep the worlds of earth and sky
separated. They stopped at the bend in the road to wave
back at the women and children. Some mothers pumped the
chubby arms of infants up and down and other women threw
cheer with the crowd because Father wasn’t among those
going. He’d died after a bull gored his stomach, not a
heroic way to die, not like a Cirrus knight in a sword
gossiping women in simple brown dresses and bright
aprons to slip into the blacksmith shop. The robot,
Smitty, looked up from the roaring blaze he stoked.
Despite the heat, Greeley liked it here.
Greeley. Will you kill my saw horse, today?”
Greeley grabbed a
poker from a hook on the wall and planted his feet in
front of his quarry. “This, is an evil lord that only I,
the last Cirrus knight, can vanquish.” He feinted at the
saw horse, retreated, then danced in to strike a
“Raise your elbow
higher when you thrust,” said Smitty. Before being
replaced by a newer model, he’d been a training robot in
sword skills for Cirrus knights. Reconditioned to still
utilize his strength, Smitty was posted in this remote
backwater of the empire.
used his sleeve to wipe his brow. “Your name wasn’t
always Smitty, was it?”
“I don’t know
that I had a name. Maybe a number. The rogue pulsar that
deactivated all the electronics on this planet wiped
portions of my memory board. But I do remember training
young knights. Resume your attack.”
“I have to go.
Mother will be expecting me for lunch.” With a sigh,
Greeley replaced the poker. Smitty was the only one, or
thing, he knew who had ever been off world. Greeley
waved bye and crossed the rutted dirt road that wound
through low hills and up to the mountaintop where the
men had gone.
He entered his
home of adobe brick where his mother strained her eyes
over embroidery on a rich man’s coat. She’d sell it to
traders who came to their isolated outpost once a year
with the Imperium soldiers collecting tribute. Someday,
he’d wear a coat like that -- after he rescued a lord
with a treasure chest. He pecked her on the cheek, and
tousled his little brother’s hair but ignored Willy’s
clamor to play. Greeley slipped the pouch holding his
pipes onto its peg by the front door.
“Let me see
them.” Willy pointed to the pipes.
say no to those shining blue eyes. “I’ll let you blow
them because you’ll be starting your lessons after
harvest.” The pipes consisted of five reeds of varying
lengths, each producing a different tone. Leather straps
bound them and Greeley’s name had been burned into the
material. Made by Father, they were special, but he
wouldn’t be making pipes for Willy.
“I want to be
just like you,” said Willy. He puffed out his cheeks and
blew a squeaky note.
“You’ll need more
energy than that,” said Mother. “Come eat lunch.”
Turnip stew again
and thick slabs of freshly baked bread slathered with
creamy butter which melted in his mouth. Greeley’s
stomach purred like the happy cat napping on the stone
The village bell
tolled. Willy whimpered. Footsteps pounded outside and
shutters slammed. Greeley stared at the window and
gasped. A giant air fish hovered there, floating in a
ribbon of thick pink-hued air.
Willy into a corner behind her rocker. “Stay put.”
his pipes, Greeley opened the front door, letting in a
gush of pink air. The giant air fish had gone, but
schools of tiny creatures flailing spidery legs floated
in. He’d only seen the ribbon come down once before,
when Father slept the worm. Today, he’d have to do it.
He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t good enough.
“Go on,” called
Mother. She whacked the spidery-legged creatures with
her broom. “It’s thicker, but you can breathe in the
He didn’t want to suck in any scaly fish.
him on the rear. “Go on. You’re letting all the beasties
in.” She knocked a yellow one out of the ribbon and it
flopped, gasping, on the tile floor. “Go, play those
breath, Greeley stepped into the pink air and climbed
the ladder to the roof. From here he could see most of
the village. The air smelled sweet and tasted like
cinnamon buns. This might not be too bad. Mother slammed
the door behind him.
An elongated air
fish with shimmering blue scales floated past and
ghostly jellyfish drifted in the current, their
tentacles illuminated with bands of sparkles.
The ribbon flowed
into the pasture where the village herd grazed.
Frightened, the cattle mooed, trotting back and forth
and shitting all over. A school of giant silver fish
descended on the fresh glistening patties, their mouths
scooping up the poop. Greeley made a disgusted face. The
fish thrashed around, pushing others out of their way
and one’s tail knocked over a section of the fence.
Cattle stampeded through the opening and into the
Behind them, a
sky worm, longer than three wagons shoved together, dove
at the school of silver fish. They flashed left
together, then right, not presenting an isolated target
for the predator. It gave up the chase and followed the
against the stone chimney. The creature’s dark skin
glistened in the pink air and its hideous mouth gaped
open, exposing wicked fangs. It snaked into an alley,
disappearing from his sight.
He lifted the
pipes to his lips and blew a trembling note.
Straightening his shoulders, he blew again, sending a
haunting tune into the breeze. Greeley peeked around the
chimney but he couldn’t see the sky worm.
through the village, one knocking over Widow Fuller’s
fence and trampling her herb garden. She flew out the
kitchen door screaming and flapping her apron. The cow
bolted across the street, onto the wooden sidewalk in
front of the tavern. The animal’s weight broke the
boards, and it fell through, bellowing. Another crashed
into a post supporting the awning of the General Store.
The awning buckled and fell. The cow charged down the
Then Greeley saw
it, the head of the sky worm. It reared above the
blacksmith’s shop with a cow clenched in its jaws. White
showed around the terrified heifer’s eyes. He wondered
if his own eyes showed white.
puffed out as he blew harder. The villagers counted on
him to sleep the sky worm before it devoured the entire
herd. He ignored the jellyfish and spidery creatures
floating around the rooftop to play the haunting tune as
Father had before him, and Grandfather before that.
down the cow, the worm swiveled its head toward the
music. Its body undulated in sinuous waves as it drew
nearer, its head bigger than a cart, its eyes the color
of blazing coals in Smitty’s forge. Filmy fins rippled
along its sides, propelling it closer, and the blackness
of its skin seemed to suck all the light into it.
Greeley swung the
pipes from side to side, as he’d been taught and the
worm’s head swayed along. The beast floated just beyond
their rooftop, transfixed by the melody and the motion
of the pipes. Its eyes dulled and a white membrane crept
from the corners. As told in stories, the worm was
falling asleep to then drift away with the ribbon’s
current. Greeley willed the worm to slumber.
out. Pain radiated up his leg where a jellyfish’s
tentacle brushed against him, releasing stinging venom.
Beneath tears in his pants, red welts rose. Greeley
kicked the jellyfish away, almost falling, and his
pipes slammed against the stone chimney. They flew from
his hand and slid into the roof’s gutter.
Greeley’s eyes, but the worm’s eyes rekindled with inner
Sucking in his
breath to ignore the pain in his leg, Greeley scooped up
the pipes, but the wood had splintered. The notes came
out as squeaks. Useless.
The sky worm’s
jaw swung open. Its eyes flashed.
and stepped backwards, into air. He fell from the gutter
into a wagon of turnips, and his breath whooshed out.
Turnips were hard. He wiggled his fingers, his toes, and
The worm’s fangs
scraped on the roof tiles where Greeley had stood. It
arched overhead and its flaming eyes bore into him.
his arms and legs. Turnips flew out until his feet
reached the solid wagon bed. He heaved off the end and
scrambled beneath the wheels. There he tucked in as
small as he could, feeling like a mouse cornered by a
The worm’s scaly
nose slammed into the wagon, its breath reeking of
rotting flesh. Greeley yelped and slid to the other
side. Mashed turnips dripped between the broken
floorboards. Shaking its head, the worm tossed
splintered wood and turnips.
called Mother from their doorway.
Greeley. He grabbed the spokes of the wheel and shook
Willy charged the
worm, thumping its tail with a broom, as Mother had the
small spidery creatures.
With a hiss, it
turned, rearing its head.
voice ripped through the air. She ran out, waving her
arms and jumping up and down.
The worm rotated
in a giant curl, closing on her. She ran for the house.
out, grabbed his brother’s ankle and yanked him down.
Willy scrambled under the wagon with him. Huddled
together, Greeley hardly dared to breathe and clapped
his hand over his brother’s mouth.
The worm’s nose
rammed against the door after Mother. Clay from the
surrounding bricks flew in a cloud, but the door held.
The sky worm hovered there, hissing.
Greeley rolled from under the wagon and jumped to his
feet. Willy was right behind him. Greeley sprinted past
the village shops, his feet pounding on the boards of
the wooden sidewalk, his heart racing also. Something
caught Greeley’s jerkin and hauled him off his feet. The
worm! Greeley twisted, kicking, and flailing.
Young Greeley.” Smitty set Greeley in front of him at
the door of his shop.
looked back. Willy was still at the wagon, his foot
caught in the wheel spokes. Partially smashed, the wheel
canted off its hub, protruding into the street.
slithered closer to him.
With a squeak,
Willy crawled back under, but his trapped leg stuck out.
He grabbed behind his knee and pulled. The foot remained
Mother ran out,
again. “Take me, beastie!”
The worm’s head
swung toward her, but then it continued to the broken
She ran closer.
clenched. The wagon wouldn’t protect Willy from another
Mother kicked its tail. With a hiss, the worm arched
toward her. She backed, then raised her skirt and fled.
the blacksmith shop, and grabbing a glove, Greeley
pulled a red hot poker from the furnace and rushed into
The worm’s head
snapped toward him.
What had he been
thinking? Greeley stood his ground. The huge body
undulated closer. His arm trembled.
screaming like it was coming from the bottom of the
village well, far and distant. Mother’s? Willy’s? His
own? He seemed to be standing above his body, not
attached to it, but watching.
gleamed. A drop of the worm’s hot and slimy saliva fell
on his hand. Greeley tipped his head back, back, until
he stared into its fiery eyes.
He danced to the
side as he had when playing Cirrus knight. With every
ounce of his strength, he swung the poker and hit its
face. Flesh sizzled.
upward, it weaved above him.
He tensed for
coiled backwards, then struck the wagon.
hacked at the monster’s tail. Blood squirted. He swung
again and again, flaying the skin off the soft fleshy
The worm writhed,
pulling itself upward out of Greeley’s reach. With only
the front of its body undulating, it floated away.
“Well done, Young
Greeley.” Smitty took the poker.
Mother held Willy
in her lap, massaging his freed ankle. Greeley hurried
to them, passing children who tugged at his jerkin and
women who grabbed his head to kiss his cheeks.
Willy looked up
at Greeley. “I want to be just like you.”
him. “You’ll be a really good piper some day.” He didn’t
say don’t be like me, the idiot who broke his pipes. Now
he’d have to use Grandfather Thom’s old ones or purchase
some from another village, something they couldn’t
them and tapped Greeley’s head. “I recorded your fight
with the sky worm and have streamed it to High Command
as your application for knight training. That is if you
approve, Young Greeley.”
“You can do
“Yes, I am still
functional as a trainer, and I will teach you, for you
have heart. That is the essence of courage.”
smarted. His words came out as if someone else said
them. “I can’t, the village needs me as their piper.”
His insides felt hollow where his dreams had burst.
Smitty. “Until Willy is ready to replace you. Did you
think training to become a knight would be fast?”
“Yes, I guess I
did.” Greeley laughed along with the others as the pink
ribbon of air lifted over the tops of the houses and
trees. The sky creatures still swarmed within, hunter
and hunted, but the worlds of air and earth no longer