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Learning Virtue

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A stiff breeze blew through the canyon, stirring the needles of the pine in which he perched, safe and hidden from sight. Crisp air sought the gaps in his clothes with prying fingers, and he wrapped his mother’s too-big scarf more securely around his throat as he huddled against the tree’s trunk. The sun was dipping beneath the horizon, and the fading, slanting light cast a gentle amber glow over the clearing. The young Rito knew his pursuers were close; he could hear them blundering through the undergrowth and the cool, clear pools nearby. Without the sun’s glare to reveal his blue feathers among the sea of green, they weren’t likely to find him. Today, as he did every day, he would win.

“Revali!” Came a petulant cry. It was loud and piercing; the sound bounced off of the stone cliffs below, making it difficult to pinpoint the source. Revali did not stir. Other voices added to the growing din, and Revali’s plumage began to puff in irritation. Caterwauling nestlings only ever made this much noise in the hour leading to food, and their lack of fortitude bothered him. What was the point of playing a game if you did not play to win? Giving up out of hunger was not the Rito way — or, at least, it was not Revali’s way.

His stomach growled. He ignored it.

The racket grew and grew, and Revali knew the others were drawing close. He caught a flash of red through the evergreen branches below. 

“Revali!” Came the cry again, this time more anger than petulance. Kohli was nearly always the first to call it quits when his stomach entered the picture, and Revali was not surprised to see him spearheading the search. “We get it! You won! The game’s over.”

“It’s dinner time!” Yenli added. A softer, lighter red than her older brother, Yenli was always tagging along behind him. Revali can’t recall her ever doing something on her own. “Mama will be mad if we’re late.”

A murmur of agreement rose from the assembled brood. There were ten of them, and Revali allowed himself a moment to preen over the fact that all of them together could not find him. Feathers in place, he dropped from the branches, slowing his fall with his outstretched wings. He nearly landed on Kohli’s head, and the chick squawked at Revali in indignation.

“Watch it!” Kohli snapped, staggering away. Revali ignored the ugly look flung his way and pretended to dust off his tunic, taking in the wide, surprised eyes of his fellows. Revali was always the last to be found, and they were always gobsmacked to lose. The predictability bordered on tedium.

“You were all the way up there?” Said one, a young boy with pale green and white plumage. Revali spared only a moment trying to remember his name. He couldn’t, but it didn’t matter; there was nothing to recommend the boy and so no need to know him.

“I won,” Revali declared smugly in lieu of response. “That makes forty-three wins.”

“Hiding that high is cheating,” Kohli muttered. His sister tugged at his wing, silently begging him to avoid a fight. The others were often in awe of Revali’s ability to climb higher than they, but Kohli was not much for appreciation.

Revali scowled. “I don’t cheat.” He glanced up at the tree. He had ascended maybe twenty, twenty-five feet, at the most. Had any of them bothered to look up, they would have seen him immediately. They never did. “If you’re a real Rito, getting up a few branches should be easy.”

Kohli opened his beak to reply, but he was cut short by a yell that echoed through the trees. Rito Village loomed above them on a higher plateau, and Revali could make out the shape of a village guard in the swiftly waning light. The nestlings began to shuffle away one by one, and Revali enjoyed a brief staring contest with the other boy. Kohli scoffed, took his sister by the hand, and followed the pack. Revali brought up the rear, content to see the bristling ends of Kohli's wings.

Revali’s triumph was short-lived, as always. By the time the children reached the first platforms of the village, the sun had sunk behind the mountains, and night had well and truly fallen; glass lanterns gleamed softly over the dark wood paths, and Revali’s mood soured the higher they traversed. Nestlings peeled off at each level, running gleefully into their homes or hopping into the welcoming arms of their parents. Revali turned his gaze away. The blind joy of the others was painful enough; the pity in the eyes of adults was far worse.

Homes and shops were passed by without comment, and by the time Revali reached the highest floor, Yenli and Kohli were his only remaining companions. Yenli periodically peeked beneath her brother’s wing to look at Revali, but Kohli studiously ignored him, and Revali returned the favor. 

“There you are!” Kohli’s mother swept out of the hut, her outline strongly illuminated by the bright fire within. Her children took after her: bold red feathers covered her from head to talon, save for a white starburst around her beak. She looked down at them with gentle blue eyes. Revali avoided her gaze.

“Sorry we’re late, Mama. Revali wouldn’t let the game end.” Kohli shot daggers over his shoulder at Revali, who began to swell with indignation. 

“That’s alright, my little ones. I’m sure you all worked up a wonderful appetite. We’re having salmon risotto tonight, Yenli.” She stroked Yenli’s head with her wing, a smile curving her beak. Yenli cheered — it was her favorite dish — and in light of such a delicious meal, even Kohli did not seem too put out by his mother’s embarrassing pet name. Kohli and Yenli scrambled to get inside, leaving Revali alone to face the agonizing task of squirming out of dinner.

“Come along, Revali,” Tuli said kindly. Revali folded his wings behind him to hide the agitation ruffling his feathers.

“I’m okay,” he demurred. He hated the nightly invitation; the only thing he hated more was the knowledge that without it, he likely wouldn’t eat that night. 

Tuli clucked her beak. “There’s no need to be shy. You’re more than welcome at our fire, dear.” She held out her wing to him expectantly. Revali shuffled from one talon to another, weighing his options. Was food worth the shame? The thick, tantalizing aroma wafted out of the hut, and Revali struggled not to inhale deeply. His stomach growled traitorously, and the corners of Tuli’s eyes crinkled in a knowing way.

“Come.” She gestured him closer. “I made more than enough for everyone. It would be a shame for any of it to go to waste.”

Revali awkwardly swallowed his hunger and lifted his head. “It’s better not to waste food,” he said at length, and he followed Tuli into the hut. If she noticed that her olive branch had been accepted, she did not comment. Tuli’s tact was something Revali envied, as he had none of it; his mother had once said his tongue was as sharp as an arrowhead and its aim as true. 

The hut’s interior was comfortably furnished, befitting the household of the village elder. Elder Hona relaxed before the blazing fire, greying wings extended to capture its warmth. Upon his knee sat a glazed bowl full of food that lay untouched. Yenli perched next to him, her own bowl in hand. To Revali’s complete and utter lack of surprise, Kohli had already dug into his own dinner. Creamy rice smeared the side of his beak, and Revali frowned at his lack of manners. 

“Wipe your face, son,” Tuli reprimanded him. Kohli looked up, rolled his eyes, and impatiently swiped at his beak with a napkin. Tuli shook her head as Revali claimed the seat farthest from Kohli. He accepted his portion with quiet thanks, but he did not tuck in until Tuli had served herself. Elder Hona at last picked up his spoon and began to eat, and soon, the hut filled with the clattering of dishes and the clacking of beaks. Revali kept his eyes trained on his bowl, determined to finish his food as quickly as etiquette would let him. He would sooner be plucked than eat like Kohli, but the longer he stayed by the elder’s fire, the more his stomach tied itself into knots. It was a familiar sensation, one Revali experienced a lot more often than he would like, and he dwelt upon his imminent escape to an unseemly degree.

“How were your games today, younglings?” Elder Hona asked. His voice boomed in the quiet, and Revali saw Yenli jump out of the corner of his eye. The elder was so old he was half-deaf; yelling was nearly the only way he could hear himself. 

“It was fun!” Yenli replied. Unlike her brother, Yenli was rather carefree; even when she lost a game (which was always), she never let it dampen her spirits. Kohli could use a few pointers. “Ula and Kohli raced to the bottom of the slope and we gathered berries and Revali won the hiding game!”

“Did he indeed?” Elder Hona cast a jolly eye in Revali’s direction. Revali flushed under his feathers, and despite himself, he sat up straighter. If he was forced to encroach on the kindness of neighbors, his manners could at least do credit to his parents’ reputation.

“He only won cause he cheated,” Kohli cut in. Revali narrowed his eyes at the boy. Stupid punk

The elder hooted in disbelief. “Revali? Cheat? Now, Kohli, it’s not becoming to tell stories. Losing a game is nothing to be ashamed of; but be careful that you don’t get in the business of spinning tales.”

“I’m not!” Kohli objected. Tuli reached out a wing to brush his cheek, but he pulled away from her. His empty bowl clattered to the floor. “Revali always cheats. He flew up into a tree so high that no one could get him! He breaks the rules!”

Revali glared at Kohli. Tuli and the elder turned to Revali, and that painful knot in his stomach twisted. “No I don’t.” Revali said, trying to keep his voice even. He hated it when adults looked at him like he'd done something wrong. 

“Flying up into a tree? You shouldn’t do that, Revali,” Tuli chided. Her voice was gentle, but it had that awful edge that every adult’s voice gets when they think they know more than they do. “It’s dangerous. You’re all much too young to do more than coast.”

“Flying will come with time,” Elder Hona told Revali affably. “No need to rush, my boy. We all take to the air as nature intends. Don’t do anything that could do you harm.”

Kohli seized his chance. “Revali’s always flying,” he asserted, pointing a finger at Revali. Revali wanted to yank his feathers out. “He flies up into trees and looks down on us and tells us we’re not real Rito cause we can’t fly yet!”

Revali’s throat threatened to close around his food. “That’s not true,” he choked out, but a leaden sensation filled him. Technically it wasn’t true. That wasn’t exactly what he’d said. But what if Tuli and the elder didn’t believe him? What if they asked the other nestlings? He imagined what they would say. What their jealousy might make them say.

“It is!” Kohli crowed. He was standing on his seat now, sensing that Revali had no control over the situation. It was a perfect chance to one-up his rival. Tuli attempted to placate him, to make him sit down, but he ignored her. Yenli watched with wide eyes, her face half-hidden in the elder’s shaggy down. Elder Hona’s considerable eyebrows had drawn together in a firm line, but he sat in silence, waiting for his daughter to retake control of her fireside. “You’re a liar and a cheat! None of us want to play with you. I don’t even know why you’re around. Why don’t you go eat in your own house instead of coming here all the time? Get your own family!”

“Enough!” The elder's voice cracked through the air like a whip, and Kohli instantly fell silent. “That’s enough, Kohli. Be silent if you have nothing good to say.” He turned to Revali, face softening under his imposing brows. Beneath the pillowy white of his wing, Yenli trembled with her beak hidden behind her hands. “Pay my grandson no mind, Revali. Tempers run high on a hungry belly and wounded pride. We know you to be honest, and you are always more than welcome here.”

Despite the fire, Revali felt immeasurably cold. His heart thudded in his chest, and he wrangled for calm that slipped through his fingers. His eyes darted around the hut, taking in Tuli’s aghast face, Kohli’s fuming anger, the Elder’s painfully piteous gaze. He clutched his bowl tightly.

“Thank you,” Revali managed. His face burned, and he was glad that his feathers hid it. The shaking of his wings was harder to hide. “I appreciate it, elder. But I think I should go home now.”

“You haven’t finished eating, Revali!” Tuli interjected. She approached him, and Revali had a sickening moment where he feared she might try to hug him. He shook his head, more adamantly than he intended, before thrusting the half-empty bowl into her hands. If they were occupied, then she couldn’t touch him, couldn’t console him.

“I’m full.” He hastily stood, edging around Tuli to get a clear shot of the door. “Thank you again. I appreciate the food. It was delicious.”

“Wait!” Tuli’s voice called after him as he fled into the night. The cold air hit him like a wall, and he shuddered from it as he hastily descended the nearby steps. The bulk of his mother’s scarf threatened to drag on the floor behind him, and he gathered it up, wrapping it around himself like a blanket. To Revali’s immense relief, everyone was still occupied with dinner, so he encountered no one except the occasional guard. They made a point of never looking at Revali, and it was easy to ignore them as he followed the spiraling stairs down a few levels. His own home sat about midway up the stone spire around which the village was built, but unlike the other homes he passed, his sat cold and dark. He fumbled with the flint, squinting by way of the pale moonlight creeping in through the doorframe. The lamp on the table lit with a quiet hiss, and Revali blinked in the sudden glare.

The hut he once shared with his mother and father had hardly been disturbed in the last few months. His father’s leather harness still hung from a hook above a hammock long abandoned; his mother’s beloved collection of shiny stones lay in an orderly row on a low shelf. The place was mostly clean, but there were patches of dust here and there where Revali could not reach. He spent most of his time away, for obvious reasons, and the only real sign that time had passed was the fistful of wild flowers tucked neatly into a little vase next to an untidy stack of books.

Revali blinked back a sudden stinging in his eyes. He grabbed a nearby cloth and began his evening ritual of wiping down everything. His mother had been a stickler for neatness, which often put her at odds with her husband, who liked things messy. The stack of books was his, and Revali did not yet have the heart to put them away. Reading them was a comfort and took him back to easier times, when he would sit by a fire enveloped by his father’s wings, his eyes tracing the difficult words as his father read aloud. No recitations broke the stillness of his home now, and the silence carved a hollow in him if he read for too long.

The hut wasn’t particularly large, and it never took him much time to clean it. The broom was somewhat too long for him, which made sweeping difficult, but it helped to keep him occupied. The chest tucked away in a corner was the only furniture that did not receive at least a cursory swipe; Revali never touched it if he could help it. His soul burned at the sight of it alone. 

When his chores were done, Revali hopped up on a chair to pull aside the heavy leather drapes that helped keep the hut warm in the cold valley winds. The icy breeze of early autumn ruffled his face, and he closed his eyes and drank it in. The moon shone, lovely and white, in the sky above him; there were few clouds, and the twinkling stars were distant and bright. 

A year ago, Revali would not have thought stargazing a very interesting hobby; he had always been one to tag along after the warriors of the tribe. Most of his earliest memories involved being swaddled in the wings of one parent while the other zoomed around the Flight Range, nailing targets with ease. If his father was not shooting, it was his mother, and many long hours had been spent watching arrows cut through the air, swift and true. It had been a long time now since he had gone to the Range, and he felt its absence like an itch he could not scratch. 

Still, the night sky brought comfort. He could feel the warmth of the fire on his back, a sharp contrast to the chill on his face, and it helped still something angry and painful in him. He would spend several hours in this way, as he did every night; when exhaustion finally dragged him down, he would curl into his hammock, his mother’s scarf pulled over his beak, and he would try his best to sleep in the quiet and empty hut that was his.

 


 

The morning dawned bright and cold. The fire in his hearth had long died, and Revali woke with a faint shiver. He stretched his stiff legs and drowsily relit the fire, crouching by its faint embers as he waited for it to grow enough to fix some food. To be honest, he was already tired of the simple cream of wheat he made every morning. It had been months since he’d had variety in his breakfast, and his cooking was subpar at best; the porridge was often faintly burnt. But the thought of imposing on his neighbors made his chest feathers puff, and so porridge it would be again today.

By the time the sun had crested the horizon, Revali was once more among his peers. Each morning was spent on lessons, led by Rito who volunteered their time to teach the nestlings. Fishing was the most frequent, as their diet consisted largely of the salmon native to the area. Some of the more adventurous adults would teach them to skip rocks or jump safely from tall heights, but they were few and far between. It was widely believed that nestlings were not big enough to do much of anything, and it would be spring again before any of them were allowed to learn something more useful than scooping fish from a pond or hovering at eye level.

Revali chafed against such restrictions. Maybe some of the other nestlings weren’t bright enough to string two ideas together, but Revali was different, and he knew it. Education was key to Rito culture, but book-learning was not; reference books and manuals were common features in a Rito household, but great works of literature or anthologies of history were rare. His parents’ tutelage in that department had already set Revali apart from others of his age.  In his mind, the morning was wasted on such useless exercises, and so he was very pleased to see that today, it was Bura who would be instructing them.

Bura stood waiting for them on the plateau just beneath the village; he was, in fact, not far from the tree in which Revali hid the night before. He towered over them, and his pale blue feathers mirrored the clear sky.

“Gather ‘round!” He called. His eyes sparkled with mischief, and Revali started to smile. Bura was younger than the other instructors, and he had a much greater sense of adventure and utility than they did. If he was teaching them today, the lesson could only be one thing.

“Are we flying?” Asked the green-feathered boy whose name Revali could not remember. Bura laced his thumbs into his belt and rocked back on his talons, surveying his charges.

“Indeed, indeed, Ula!” He swept one wing out in a broad gesture that encompassed all of them. “Elder Hona thinks you chicks should get more of a taste for the sky! You’ll start practicing more seriously after the Frost, so you might as well get a head start!”

Murmurs of excitement rose all around him, but Revali’s enthusiasm was tempered by a bolt of self-consciousness. Elder Hona? Wanting them to fly? His mind unwillingly raced to dinner, and he saw again the looks on Tuli and the elder’s faces when Kohli exposed him. He cringed, shifting a little so the others stood between him and Bura. He knew today’s lesson could somehow be traced to him, and he didn’t know whether to be proud or mortified at his hand in it.

He did not have much time to dwell on it, though. Bura promptly wrangled them into a tight pack and led them to a comfortably sized clearing. Revali was near the rear, and it saved him from having to meet Bura’s eyes. At Bura’s direction they lined up, and Revali slid into the last spot. 

“Alright, everyone!” Bura clapped his hands together, looking up and down their ragtag formation. Revali carefully looked at Bura’s wings instead of his face. “Wings spread! I’ll be coming around and checking your posture!”

A quick scramble ensued, and Revali edged away from Gujira, a brown-and-white girl, as she zealously flung her wings apart as far as they would go. Bura moved down the line, checking them one by one; here positioning a wing, there smoothing feathers into place. Revali experienced a surge of panic when he realized he would soon be face-to-face with their master.

Revali took a deep breath, trying to steady the nervous pounding of his heart. He closed his eyes and lifted his beak, positioning his wings in the way his mother had shown him a long time ago. This was old hat to him; he’d been able to lift himself off the ground since before he’d been orphaned. He focused on that, on that sense of accomplishment, as Bura stepped in front of him.

“Oho! Excellent posture, Revali. As expected.” Revali could sense Bura’s presence, and he waited anxiously for his teacher to move on. For a few moments, he was sensible only of the throb of his heart in his throat; then, a hand fell on the crown of his head, and his stance faltered as he startled. Cracking one eye open, Revali caught a glimpse of pride in Bura’s eyes. He withdrew his hand and strode back up the line. The lump in Revali’s stomach eased somewhat.

The lesson proceeded smoothly, and Revali was relieved when Bura did not single him out further; he largely kept to his own, as he was more advanced than the other nestlings. He hovered on the outskirts of the group as they clumsily took to the sky, one at a time, and Bura gently guided them. Revali flew only when Bura’s back was turned; whenever the older Rito looked in his direction, Revali made a point of landing as quickly as possible. Perhaps it was silly, but Revali felt as though his flying prowess was a secret, something illicit that the adults should not know about. That was stupid, as Elder Hona now at least had an idea. Perhaps it was petty, but Revali did not want to vindicate Kohli’s accusations against him.

By midday, order among the nestlings had broken down. Bura tried to keep them focused on flying, but the caws of hunger began to multiply, and he shrugged good-naturedly in the face of their distraction. He released them with a grin and a wink, and Revali’s peers waddled madly in the direction of the village, already calling for their mothers. Revali scowled in disgust at the display. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Bura watching him. His feathers bristled at the attention, and he swiftly turned and plunged into the nearby undergrowth. The others may have families ready and waiting to feed them, but Revali would need to fend for himself. 

Noon passed in a mild haze. The weather was fine, and the summer berries were giving way to the hot peppers that dotted the landscape in red bundles. Revali gathered them in his arms as he dipped and ducked through the foliage, enjoying the faint warmth of the sun dappling through the leaves. Berries and peppers mixed indiscriminately in his beak, and he relished the sweet heat. In the distance, he could make out the swooping forms of several Rito as they headed to the Flight Range. A pang of jealousy twisted his stomach, and he stood for some time, eyes trained on them as they receded into the horizon. When they had melted into the sky, he turned his face away and retreated to the village.

The village was a noisy affair in the afternoons. The young among them were rarely at home except during meal times, and the chirps and trills of satisfied nestlings devouring food followed Revali as he wound his way up the stairs. He had no intention of going home (he never did, except to sleep), but there was one place he did not mind loitering, provided people were scarce.

 


 

The bowyer’s hut was a magical place. Despite the breezes that regularly swept through Rito homes, it always smelled strongly of wood. Shavings stirred up into mini dust storms, and Revali covered his beak with his scarf to avoid breathing it in. Orli was a permanent fixture, a Rito of relatively short stature but surprising strength. As Revali entered, the bowyer stood bent over a long plane of birch, meticulously scratching measurements into the wood. His feathers and eyes were a warm brown, and he did not seem the least surprised to look up and find an orphan in his home.

“Was wondering when you’d show up.” Orli’s voice was gruff but not unfriendly. A small stool waited by the door, and Revali perched on it, as he was wont to do whenever he intruded on the bowyer’s business. Further acknowledgement was not forthcoming, but Revali was used to that; part of the appeal was Orli’s aloof nature. 

“What are you making today?” Revali asked after a comfortable amount of time had elapsed. It was fascinating to watch Orli’s swift, sure movements as he cut out the limbs and sanded the surface smooth. 

“Basic bow,” Orli replied laconically. He tossed his heavily braided head towards a corner, and Revali’s eyes followed. Several unstrung bows were stacked there already, all of the same wood and shape.

Revali blinked. “Are we out of bows?” That seemed impossible in a village whose primary form of defense was archery. Orli snorted.

“Don’t be asinine. We have plenty of bows. Just none the right size for brats.”

Revali blinked again. He peered more closely at the stack of bows, and it struck him that they were significantly shorter than the bows wielded by their warriors. A thrum of excitement made his feathers tremble.

“Are those for us?” Revali asked, trying to keep his voice calm and disinterested. He obviously failed; a small smile curved Orli’s beak. Revali flushed and sheltered in his scarf.

“For you, yes. If Elder Hona decides you’re steady enough flyers by the time the flowers bloom.”

Revali’s chest feathers puffed. “I’m already a steady flyer, “ he announced, forgetting his earlier notion that such a thing should be secret from the adults. Orli didn’t count because Orli didn’t talk to anybody. “I can hit thirty feet already, no problem.”

“Can you?” Orli’s nonchalant tone made Revali bristle, but there was no condescension in Orli’s gaze. The bowyer eyed him up and down, sizing him up. Revali sat up straighter. “And what does the elder say to that?”

Revali wilted, but only a bit. “He doesn’t know. Yet,” he hastily added. “He will soon. Bura’s going to be giving us more flying lessons.”

“I’m sure he will.” Orli bent back over his work. His braids clattered into his face, and he swept them away impatiently. “Not that you need a bow. You already have one, don’t you?”

Revali stilled. He kept his eyes trained on Orli’s hands as they expertly worked to form the handle of the bow. His mind wandered to the chest in his hut, but he shied from it. “No. I don’t.”

“Hrrmph.” With a mighty exhale, Orli blew away the dust that had gathered around the wood as he planed it to perfection. He studied his handiwork. “Well, it’s not like you could use that bow, anyway. It’s far too big for a pint-sized punk like you.”

“I’m not pint-sized!” Revali snapped. Orli’s eyes crinkled with humor, but that only irked Revali further. The young Rito stood, drawing himself up to his full height. To his annoyance, he barely brushed Orli’s chest. Revali tried to forget that Orli was short by Rito standards. “I’m catching up to you already.”

“So I see.” Orli reached under his worktable, and his hand groped blindly through a sack. He straightened, and Revali could see a wheel of measuring tape between Orli’s fingers. “Prove it, then. Pint.”

Revali endured the indignation of Orli measuring him, crest to talon, wingtip to wingtip. Orli was clearly trying to prove a point. Revali resolved not to prove Orli’s point for him.

“See?” Revali tilted his beak up at Orli as the bowyer collected the tape, his survey of Revali complete. “I’m growing strong, and fast.”

Orli clucked. He returned to his work as though he hadn’t just embarrassed the lights out of Revali. “Fast, yes. Strong? Maybe. You think you’re strong enough to string a bow? Strong enough to draw one?”

“Of course I am!” Revali lied. Did he believe that? Possibly. Did he know it? Revali would rather throw himself off a cliff than show Orli his doubts. The other adults looked down on him. He couldn’t stand it if Orli did, too.

“We’ll see.” Orli sent Revali a maddeningly dismissive glance. “Scram, will you? I’m about to start real work here, and you’re in the way.”

The words stung, but there was no heat to Orli’s voice. Revali understood, and he departed in a better mood than he’d been in for days. Revali whiled away the rest of the afternoon and evening in solitude, trying to fly higher into the trees, trying to break his thirty-foot cap. He did so again the next day, and the next, the image of the birch wood beneath Orli’s fingers fixed in his mind. If he could just push further — climb higher — he could grasp a bow and show his elders what he was made of. What he could be.

The fourth day passed, and when Revali returned to his darkened home, something lay waiting for him on the table. Revali lit the lamp and stifled the trill of joy bubbling in his breast. He unwrapped the oiled cloth with trembling fingers, and he gently grasped the handle of a well-crafted bow. Birch. He hefted it with wonder, examining every inch of it, marveling at its balance in his hands. Almost lost in the folds of the wrapping lay a small, neatly scribbled note. It read only, Keep quiet.

Revali blinked hard. He held the bow (his bow) before him, and with a jolt, he saw it was exactly the right length for him. His mind flashed to Orli’s teasing, to the measurements, and gratitude battled something stifling and wet in his throat. 

He would prove himself. He would stand out above the others. He had to, now, if he wanted to be worthy of this gift.

 


 

The weeks wore on, and autumn winds blew into chilly winter blasts. As the ponds froze over, fishing lessons were suspended; the nestlings spent more and more lukewarm afternoon hours preparing themselves for spring, when at last they would take to the skies in earnest. Revali’s mood swung as wildly as the shifting breeze: although he enjoyed the flying lessons — little by little revealing more of his skill each day — the freezing evening weather made foraging for himself difficult. The turn of the year approached, and as he could not live on peppers alone, Revali was more often obliged to rely on the goodwill of his neighbors for food. It rankled deeply. The pity in their eyes had not waned in the months since his parents left on patrol and never returned, and it was a dagger in Revali’s back.

His fellow nestlings had made clunky but steady progress in their flight, and Revali, whose mind now strayed constantly to the bow hidden under the winter rugs in his hut, decided that secrecy was not worth handicapping his growth. He now flew openly, almost proudly, before the others, and he brushed off their annoyed expressions with the thought of being the first to graduate to archery. This desire was only strengthened by Bura’s praise and the cheek espoused to Revali daily. Rema, a youth who was often overshadowed by Kohli’s attitude, had made the most progress; every day, Revali had to tolerate Rema’s boasts.

“Papa’s taking me to the Range again after lunch,” he crowed. Going to the Range was a source of envy for every Rito child, and Rema knew it. “I get to spend alllllll afternoon watching him shoot. He’s the best archer in the village!” Rema’s chest puffed. “Someday I’m going to be just as great.”

Something ugly wrapped its fingers around Revali’s heart. He wanted to correct Rema — your father isn’t the best archer in the village — but he refrained. As much as he might hate it, such a claim was true, now that Revali’s own father was gone. He wrestled with that awful sensation in his chest. Bura’s instructions to his fellows seemed to come to him from a great distance, and Revali shook his head distractedly when his turn came. He took off aggressively, and Bura’s alarmed shout went unheeded as Revali clawed at the air for height.

So what if your father’s the best archer? Revali seethed. The bright, pale expanse of the sky burned in his eyes. He wanted to suck it into his lungs and blow it all away. He won’t be. Not for long. And neither will you!

“Revali!” Bura called. The note of panic in his voice was lost to the young Rito. “Revali, come down, now!”

Revali ignored him. He pounded at the air with his wings, ascending above the treeline through sheer grit. He was an ungainly sight, but that awareness was beyond him; he knew only triumph as he cleared fifty, sixty, sixty-five feet — he had surpassed himself, he had doubled his altitude.

Top that! Smugness rolled through Revali, and his eyes drifted down, roving over the other nestlings, bunched together in a frightened herd far beneath him. Bura was still shouting, but the wind swept his words away. Try to catch me now.  

Another Rito hurried down from the village, and Revali could pick out the red of her feathers through the clear winter air. Tuli was gesturing in Revali’s direction, and he felt a swell of pride when he realized he must be visible from the village. The nestlings gathered around Tuli, and she held them close as Bura turned his beak up to regard Revali, who hung suspended in the air only by the extremity of his effort. Revali’s breaths came like the blowing of a bellows, and a powerful ache had spread through his wings, but he did not descend. There was a heady satisfaction to watching his elders from such a great height.

Bura took off, and Revali’s laborious ascent was swiftly overtaken by the stronger, more experienced Rito. Bura grabbed at Revali with his talons, and Revali, tired and clumsy in the air, could not duck away in time. He beat half-heartedly at Bura with his wings, which his teacher ignored; exhausted, Revali sullenly allowed himself to be borne to the ground.

“Revali!” Tuli said. Sternness was out of place on her face, and she clucked at him in a way she reserved only for her own wayward chicks. “What are you doing!? You could have hurt yourself!”

Revali tried to pull away from Bura’s grip, but Bura’s hand was firm in the collar of his heavy winter tunic. His teacher’s face was a storm, and the first pangs of regret quivered down his spine.

“I was flying,” he replied petulantly, and he cringed at how whiny it sounded outside of his head. Kohli had his wings wrapped around Yenli, who looked as though she would faint. His rival’s eyes held a churlish glint, and behind him, the nestlings regarded Revali with a mix of envy and fear.

“Lesson’s over,” Bura ground out. Revali retreated into the comforting folds of his scarf. Bura’s voice never sounded like that, ever. “Tuli, if you would take the others home, I would appreciate it.”

Tuli looked between Revali and Bura, her eyes searching. “Of course,” she said after a heartbeat. She fixed a smile onto her beak and brushed her wings gently over the heads of her charges. “Come, everyone,” she cooed, shepherding them in the direction of the village, “I was just about to get some baking done. Who would like some?”

The tense mood shifted noticeably, and the nestlings cawed in anticipation of food as they vanished into the trees. Revali stood with Bura in silence, refusing to look at his teacher. Gradually, the tight fist in Revali’s collar relaxed, and Bura released him.

“Revali,” Bura began, but Revali turned away. The shame that had wriggled in his gut had spread to the rest of him, and he burned hot with it. If he looked Bura in the eyes now, he would fly to pieces. He would see the reproach of his mother and father and every Rito before him in that reflection, and it wasn’t something he felt he could handle now, or ever.

He plunged into the nearby bushes, hoping Bura’s stature would prevent him from following. Bura dogged after him, swiping branches out of his path in aggravation. But Bura said nothing, and Revali toiled on until he reached the edge of the plateau. The valley spread out suddenly before him, a dizzying vertigo, and Revali, suddenly lightheaded, crumpled in a heap. He wrapped his wings around his legs and hid his face behind the fan of his feathers. Bura pulled up beside him, and after a brief, weighty pause, he lowered himself to sit, his talons dangling over the precipice. Revali felt his shoulder brush Bura’s breastplate, and he shied away from his mentor.

Silence stretched between them. Revali sheltered under his wings; his hot breath blew back into his own face in the confining gap between his thighs and his head. He could hear the faint call of birds nesting in a nearby thicket and the quiet scraping of wind through branches. Revali tracked the progression of the sun through the sky by the warmth of its rays on his back, and after almost an hour, the stiffness in his shoulders became too much. Slowly, he lowered his wings and peeked at Bura. 

Bura gave no sign he noticed Revali’s movements. His eyes were trained on the sky, and there was something peaceful and contemplative in his brow.

“Are you going to kick me out of the class?” Revali asked. He had expected to be shouted at, to be disciplined. Bura’s silence was more unnerving than punishment.

“No,” Bura said. The midday sun was nearing its zenith, and its weak winter light cast Bura’s face in pale shadow as he looked down to study Revali. “I will not kick you out. You have many lessons yet to learn, fledgling, and removing you from my care would not help you.”

“Will I be held back, then?” Revali thought of the archery lessons awaiting them at the close of winter. A terrible and heavy weight pressed upon him. “Will you stop me from learning archery?”

“I won’t do that, either.” Bura drummed his fingers on his thigh. “Whatever your hang-ups with flying, it has nothing to do with wielding a bow. Revali,” Bura tilted Revali’s face up to meet his own. “Why do you want to fly?”

That caught Revali off-guard. “Why?” He asked incredulously. Whatever he thought Bura might say, that was not it. “Because I’m a Rito. All Rito fly.”

“I get that,” Bura said. There was a note of impatience in his voice. “But why are you so keen? The others are content to let nature take them where they need to go. Why not you?”

Revali floundered. He knew very well why. Telling his teacher something so personal was another matter entirely. What could he possibly say?

Bura shook his head when Revali failed to answer. He spread a wing over the cliff, gesturing to the stone, the sky, the horizon. Revali’s eyes followed his wingtip. “The Rito are meant to fly. It is our nature. Whether we will it or no, we all eventually feel the draw of the open air. Flight comes to each of us, in our own time, and when we are ready, we take our place in the sky. You must learn to trust the wind, Revali,” Bura turned his earnest gaze upon his charge. “Trust it. Do not attempt to conquer it. To conquer the sky would be to conquer yourself. We fly through falling, and even the strongest Rito cannot bend the air to his will. You can only go as far as nature will take you, so you must learn to work with it. Do not fight who you are, and you will succeed. Do you understand?”

Revali craned his neck. The sun shifted in and out of focus, obscured by the clouds blowing in over the mountains. It was going to snow that evening. Already the chill fell around them. “I think I do,” he said slowly. It was a profound notion. What was his nature? He had only ever been Revali. What did that mean, then? What did it mean to be Revali?

Bura sat for a few minutes more, watching Revali watch the sky. Eventually, he nodded. “As long as you understand,” Bura cautioned. He stood, dusting off his clothes. “Go home and rest. You strained yourself today. You will need to recover. Strength and grace in the air is admirable, but it is not easily achieved. You must work at it. Gradually,” He emphasized, staring sternly into Revali’s eyes. Revali tried his best not to look away. “Gradually. You have your whole life to learn.”

Revali watched his instructor leave. That was all well and good, Revali supposed; perhaps others could take their whole lives. But Revali was determined to be ready by spring. He would find himself, and he would fly higher than any other.

 


 

Revali returned home and rested, as his teacher directed him, but he did not stop. When he was suitably recovered, Bura allowed him to return to his lessons. In the evenings, Revali, grateful that no adult was present to stop him, would sneak to the edge of the wood and practice, his mother’s scarf safeguarding him from the freezing air. The memory of her flight mastery guided him. 

Bura had told him not to fight the wind, but strength could not be acquired without struggle. He was determined that by the time the rivers thawed, his wings would bear him without exertion. While the others learned to navigate the air, he would be able and ready to take a bow in hand — the first nestling allowed among the adults at the Range, not as an observer, but as a participant. The name Revali would no longer cause whispers of “orphan” or glances of pity in the village, for he would forge for it a new meaning, one that engendered respect. For honor, Revali would craft a new nature, and should the sky not accept it, he would cleave through the wind with his own power. Revali, he decided, would be the first Rito to fly without falling.