Cordyn sat on the rocky cliff, one knee hugged to their chest, their other foot dangling over the edge. Their chin-length dark hair hid most of their face, and clouds lapped at their ankle, billowing in the wind that swept down from the mountaintop. I hesitated on the path, not sure what I could possibly say, but knowing that I had to say something.
“I’m fine, Arlyn.” Cordyn shifted on the ledge, tucking their wings even tighter to their back. “You should stop worrying about me.”
“I didn’t expect the egg to be so big. So close to hatching.” I stepped off of the path, reached out a hand, then pulled it back before my fingers brushed against their storm-gray feathers. “It was a bit of a shock, realizing that you’ll have to leave so soon.”
The wind swirled around us, revealing Cordyn’s face. Their gaze lingered on the horizon, far off over the cloud ocean. “Do you think there’s really anything under the clouds?”
“Of course I do.”
“Why does no one ever come back, then?”
“Because it’s forbidden. Because there is too much to do to waste time moving backwards.
Because there are insufficient updrafts.” I shrugged. “Because there’s nothing here to come back to.”
“I remember when you were an egg,” Cordyn said. “I remember Lialyn’s face when they held you. It broke their heart to leave so quickly after you hatched.”
“I’m sure they’re waiting for you, under the clouds.”
“I wish I was sure.” Cordyn stood up, towering a full head over me. They reached out and patted my shoulder, their hand warm and comforting. “It’s almost time for dinner. Let’s go home.”
We lived in one of the sandy caves tucked near the top of the mountain. Cordyn coaxed a fire from the glowing coals and melted snow in a wide clay pot. “You’re still worrying,” they said.
I knelt next to the fire. “You’re still morose.”
That earned me a small smile, the first I’d seen since we visited the egg cave. “Morose might be a bit strong.”
“Maudlin. Melancholy. Dour.”
They crumbled a handful of lichen into the water and the green smell of it filled the space. “I don’t want to leave. I’m afraid of what I might find under the clouds. Or worse, of what I won’t find.”
There was only space in our home for two. Two down-lined beds. Two blankets. Two cups.
Cordyn poured us equal portions and handed me my cup. I blew on the surface and watched the steam billow. Tiny wisps of the clouds that surrounded our mountaintop. “You can’t break the cycle.” I said. “When the egg hatches, the elder leaves. It is the way.”
“I know, Arlyn. I know. I’ll go when the time comes. There isn’t enough lichen for three, anyway.”
“Lialyn named you long before you hatched,” Cordyn panted. Their face was red from exertion–they had been flying up to gather lichen and firewood from the craggy slopes where there were no paths. My wings weren’t yet strong enough to help, so I stood below, holding a basket and feeling mostly useless.
“Do you want to name the new egg?” I asked.
Cordyn shook their head. “Lialyn loved you before you hatched. I don’t love this egg. Maybe you should name it.”
I didn’t love the egg, either. I loved Cordyn. “Maybe I’ll name them after you.”
Cordyn laughed. “Sure. I won’t be around for long enough for that to be confusing.”
“Maybe there are other foods under the clouds. Something to eat that isn’t lichen.” I didn’t really understand Cordyn’s fear. I couldn’t wait to leave this place. I was tired of the unchanging passage of days, each the same as the last. Under the clouds, there’d be adventure. New places, different people. If my wings were stronger, I could go in their place.
“Maybe,” Cordyn said. “I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”
I started training, straining to get stronger before the Egg Cordyn hatched. I didn’t tell Cordyn–I didn’t want to get their hopes up.
I flew up the mountain and looked down at our home. The cave mouth was a gaping shadow, and my entire world lay spread out under me. Clouds billowed all around our mountaintop, stretching out to the blue horizon. I strained to hover, my wings moving faster as each beat grew weaker.
My muscles burned and shook. My left wing spasmed, and I lost a foot of elevation.
I descended in a barely-controlled fall and landed badly. My right ankle caught on a rock and twisted. Pain ricocheted through me.
Cordyn found me a few minutes later, shaking and crying. They carried me to the cave and laid me gently on my bed. They tucked their pillow under my ankle and packed it in snow.
“It won’t work, Arlyn,” they said. “You’re too young.” They gave me a tiny smile. “Besides, you’re the one that named the egg after me. You can’t leave us here together.”
I laid in our cave and stared at the rock overhead. I imagined living on after Cordyn left, imagined being the older, wiser one. That thought had some appeal, but not as much as adventure beneath the clouds.
Maybe my ankle wasn’t so bad. Maybe I could still go, and not have to wait for the next egg, for my proper turn. I rolled over and tried to push to my feet. I took one step, then another. I told myself that the pain wasn’t that bad. That Cordyn could rename the egg. That I didn’t need my ankle to fly.
I staggered along, clinging to the stone cliffs.
Cordyn landed in front of me, their face twisted in anger. “Arlyn. What do you think you’re doing?”
“I can still go,” I said. “I can go, and you can stay. You don’t have to name the egg Cordyn. You can name it whatever you want.”
“You’re not ready,” they snapped. “We don’t know how far down the clouds go, and you don’t have enough endurance. You’ll fall again, and break more than just your ankle.”
“But you don’t want to go! And I do! It’s not fair!”
Cordyn’s anger drained away. “Fair has nothing to do with it. The elder leaves, the younger stays and raises the egg. There is no other way, no switching of roles, no compromise.” They put a hand on my shoulder. “I know that you would go for me if you could, and I appreciate the thought. But you can’t, Arlyn. You can’t.”
Tears blurred my vision, and Cordyn wrapped me in a warm hug. Then they lifted me off of my feet and carried me back to our cave.
“There is a world down there,” I said. “I know there is.”
Cordyn gave me a sad smile and didn’t reply.
I was still limping when the egg hatched. The hatchling pushed their way out of their smooth stone nest and fell into Cordyn’s arms. New Cordyn’s black feathers were damp and disarrayed, their eyes the bright blue of the daytime sky. The two Cordyns stared at each other for a long moment. A tear slipped down my Cordyn’s cheek as the hatchling clung to them.
I cleared away the egg fragments. The new egg was already budding from the nest, creamy white and smaller than my closed fist. Its surface was warm to the touch. The warmth seemed to travel up my arm and settle into my heart.
This egg would be my freedom. This egg, I could love.
We all sat together by the fire till night fell, then Cordyn tucked the hatchling into their bed.
We walked to the edge of the cliff and stood together, looking up at the stars. Cordyn reached a hand up, as if they could pluck one out of the sky. “I wonder if I’ll ever see the stars again.”
I didn’t know what to say. I reached out and put my hand on their storm-gray wing, and they leaned into my touch. “Don’t worry about me, Arlyn.”
“I’ll miss you.”
They hugged me, tight, and I tried to memorize every piece of them. “You have faith that you’ll see me again.”
I wasn’t sure if it was a reminder or an order. I nodded.
Cordyn looked up at the stars one last moment, then launched themselves into the air. They were a shadow against the clouds below, then they were gone.
I limped back up to the egg cave. I ran a finger over its smooth, warm shell. “Grow quickly,” I whispered. “Please.”
New Cordyn had crept out of their bed, and stood waiting for me in the cave mouth. They took my hand between their smaller ones.
I ruffled their dark hair, marveling at how soft it was. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about me, Cordyn.”