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art by Shannon N. Kelly

The Age of Three Stars

Kenneth Schneyer forgot he wanted to be a writer for 25 years, until he was ambushed by a gang of plot bunnies in 2006. Since then, he has sold stories to Analog, Abyss & Apex, Clockwork Phoenix 3, The Drabblecast, Bull Spec, GUD and Cosmos Online. He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 2009, and joined the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop in 2010.

During his strange career, Ken has worked as an actor, a corporate lawyer, a dishwasher, an IT project manager, a trainer for the Princeton Review, and the Assistant Dean of a technology school. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye.

He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, the Academy of Legal Studies in Business, the Project Management Institute, the Codex Writers Group and the Alpha Delta Phi Society.

He is interested in astronomy, history, politics, presidential trivia, brain science, and practically everything else.

Petros cowered, well hidden in the stinking alley. He could not, did not deserve to avert his gaze as three Watchers in the street wrenched a girl from the grasp of her weeping parents. Even then, her desperate father put a foot forward to stop them; but one burly Watcher drew his black-and-silver sword and raised it to the old man's chin, grinning as if he were about to enjoy a fine meal or a game of dice. The father backed away, burying his face in his woolen shirt.
The girl couldn't have been more than fourteen. At best, she'd spend a half-moon as a plaything for some Noble or the Watch themselves, then be thrown back into the street barely alive--if alive, if not mutilated. At worst--Petros closed his eyes and swallowed, trying not to think about the King and his Royal Feasts, the roasts and stews carved from the flesh of children.
But shutting out the present only invited the past. Faces cascaded into his mind, Melanion and Cora and Timothy, their hair still ebony or golden, their skins still smooth, mocking Petros's own haggard visage, the grizzled strands on his head. They did not accuse him--they never did--but smiled and laughed, and sang their stupid song: Praise the Age that begins! As if cringing helplessly weren't bad enough, he had to hear that lie echoing in his head.
After waiting, oh-so-safe in his alley until the Watchers left, Petros slunk back to the forge. He didn't strike out for Black Hill, though that had been his intention. He would go tomorrow. Maybe he wouldn't go at all.
When he returned to the blacksmith's shop, Zandra was waiting for him, grubby as ever, her face peering over the top of the anvil like a raggedy puppet. She was hefting his largest hammer in both hands, and amazingly, she was able to handle it without falling over. He'd never met a twelve-year-old, much less a girl, who could wield something so heavy.
"Where were you?" she demanded.
"How is that your business?" he returned. "Go back to your parents."
"Don't have any; told you before. And it's mean to say."
Petros had forgotten, maybe on purpose. He didn't want to think of how she'd probably been orphaned, didn't want to imagine her in the place of the girl he'd just seen in the street.
Zandra stared at him, scowling, the hammer still in her hand. He had the irrational feeling that he was in danger from her.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Gonna be a smith."
Petros glanced over at Damon the master smith, who was filing the rough edges off a scythe. The huge, younger man seemed not to have heard Zandra, nor even noticed that she was in the forge.
"We discussed this before."
"You'll teach me."
"I won't," he said.
"Sure," she insisted, swinging the hammer around her in a circle. "Gonna be your apprentice."
He reached out and plucked the hammer out of her hands in mid-swing, easy for his muscles but painful for his old joints. He winced. "Journeymen don't have apprentices. You'd have to ask Master Damon, and I can tell you he'll say no."
"Don't want Damon; I'm your apprentice."
"No, you're not."
She hung around for the rest of the day. Damon continued to act as if she weren't there, and Petros did his best to ignore her. She did not interrogate him about metalwork, but kept her eyes fixed on him the whole time, marking every movement of his arms, copying his stance, moving along with him when he heated ingots or shaped a horseshoe.
She asked only one question the whole afternoon. "What's that song you hum?" she asked in a sudden, loud voice.
"What? What song?"
"You know." She hummed it.
Praise the Age that begins!
Petros swallowed and stole another look at Damon, but the younger man still seemed to notice nothing.
For a moment he had to struggle to keep silent. Something about the girl's calm, dirty face, her unblinking grey eyes, made him want to unburden himself, finally, after all this time.
"None of your business," Petros said at last. Zandra shrugged.
This was Black Hill, but not as it had been in the old days. The wind was less forgiving, the air sharper, the grove of trees on the south side of the summit thicker than Petros remembered. From the north side he'd have a safe, easy view of the sky, and the grove would hide him from the city. He was alone. There was no one picking berries among the thorns or lolling about on the jagged, tufty grass. In two days he'd be able to creep up the hillside and watch the miracle unobserved.
Praise the Age that begins!
Petros shook his head as if he had fleas, his white hair whipping around his ears. He needed to find a place in the grove where he could hide, just in case. He didn't think the Watch would be looking for him here, didn't think they even knew who he was anymore. He doubted that they had ever taken the damned song seriously in the first place; why should they?
Praise the Age that begins!
He shook his head again. Even if the Watch wasn't looking for him, even if the hilltop was deserted now, he couldn't take the chance. But there was nothing to worry about today; if the Watch expected anything, they expected someone to be here later, for the eclipse itself. Right now he was safe.
Safe and futile. Did he need to witness the eclipse with his own eyes to know that nothing was going to happen? Hadn't history proved it? Hadn't all the others proved it?
Praise the Age that begins!
"Damn it." His voice rasped under the hiss of the wind in the trees.
The song never left him. When he hammered steel in the forge, each ringing blow tearing at his swollen wrists and elbows was a drumbeat for Cora's old chant. Washing his clothes in the river on a fine day when his joints did not pain him too badly, sometimes he caught himself humming the same wretched tune. It was as if all the betrayed dead sat in his brain and sang this silly, stupid anthem, this blunder of a prophecy.
Melanion, a drunk and usually a fool, had had seven cups of dark highland wine that night. They were all pretty well ruined by then; the tavern master had been asking them to leave for an hour. Melanion had told the tavern master to go take a piss, belched loudly, and then gone all strange-eyed, his voice weird and his whole body shaking. The prediction came as if ripped out of him by tongs.
Mad and fermented as it sounded, something about it caught and held the rest of them, and before dawn Cora had taken out her small harp and made it into a song. Petros didn't want to think about Cora, but the last few lines came of their own accord:
The Dogs of the People bequeath a new world,
Praise the Age that begins!
We'll witness the Dawn of the Age of Three Stars,
Praise the Age that begins!
An anthem for the Dogs of the People was ridiculous. Anthems made you think of fierce, terrified soldiers marching behind banners, or the Watch howling in chorus as it smashed heads and hacked off arms, or a hired choir singing the virtues of the King as he picked his nose.
No songs for the Dogs; the Dogs were insane. A scruffy pack of artisans and laborers who met in taverns and on the road, men and women who had seen their livelihoods stolen, their children eaten or molested, their wives and husbands mutilated or raped--grief and rage and lifelong suffering had driven them not to despair, which was the sensible conclusion, but to lunatic hope. They labored to organize all the people, or at least the people who didn't have family in the Watch, into a great wave of flesh to smash the Watch and storm the King's citadel.
It was a stupid plan, and when they were sober they all knew it. But madness that is born of desperation admits no cure, and they told each other that it was only a matter of time, more work, more quiet talk in taverns and alleys and darkened kitchens, before the people would rally and take back what was theirs. "Freedom!" they murmured in their drink. "Brotherhood!" "The end of power!"
And perhaps it hadn't been so utterly mad. In all the hushed, urgent talks he'd had in smoky rooms and remote farm rows, eye-to-eye and hand on shoulder, Petros had seen longing in the eyes of his listeners. They couldn't picture rising by themselves, but they could imagine a future without the King, without the Watch. They hungered for it; they dreamed of rescue. But would they follow the Dogs?
Then Melanion made his prophecy and Cora sung it, and Timothy, who knew the stars and planets, told them that there would, indeed, be an eclipse of the sun at high noon, directly over Black Hill, on a date some 33 years hence. Thirty-three years--it seemed discouragingly far away, but it was a date the Dogs could believe. Yes, they told each other, yes, it would take that long. To gather enough people, to build the discipline, to create a multitude willing to die for the cause--they thought that a generation and a half might be long enough. The song spread, and became a watchword among the Dogs of the People, a promise that their efforts would come to fruition, that their sacrifice would be worth it in the end.
But there were no three decades of labor, no steady increase of followers, no magic army. The Watch had seen all of it, could even recite the song, and over a few months they hunted and butchered all the Dogs.
All but Petros. Lying low in refuse dumps, slipping from the capital city under a cartload of dung, wandering under a half-dozen names, luck and stealth protecting him, he lost himself in towns and villages where no one he loved had ever been. Finally, after more than twenty years, he returned to the city, a journeyman smith, found work in Damon's forge--nodding and smiling to the Watch when it passed in the street, even when it trod over the spot where Cora had died.
So he would witness the eclipse. He would stare up at a black sun and look for the three stars Melanion had predicted, the new age he'd promised. And stars or no stars, the Watch would still be there; the Nobles would still rape and dismember; the King would still eat the young. And Petros would be there to see it. That was his destiny, to endure the snuffing of the last feeble ember of his hope.
On his way to the shop in the pale morning, Petros passed by the square where the farmers had been selling autumn vegetables before sunrise. A pack of street urchins was scavenging for scraps, the bigger ones crowding out the small ones. The small ones were going to die, Petros knew. It was lucky that the Watch hadn't already rounded them all up for feasts.
Normally he passed the spectacle with his eyes downward, but today he stopped and watched. Two of the littlest children, a boy and a girl, were darting between the larger ones, snatching at what bits of carrot top and other scraps they could reach. Two bigger boys, one with red hair and one with black, with hard faces and filthy, broken nails, spun round and dragged the smaller pair by their ragged clothing, pushed them against a brick building, and hauled back as if to smash them in the face.
The boys' heads turned; Petros's did too. Zandra was standing in the alley, her dark grey eyes fixed on the beating. She walked up to them slowly, not cautiously but rather as if she were taking in the sights and sounds of the dirty marketplace. Every eye was on her.
Petros assessed the scene. Zandra was strong for her size, could probably thrash one of the boys if it came to it, but he doubted that she could overcome both. His own leg muscles tensed as if to move in to help. Petros made them relax. This isn't my fight, he told himself. If I couldn't fight for the Dogs, why should I fight for the likes of these?
The two boys looked Zandra in the eye, and she said, "Let go."
There was a pause in which no one moved. Then, without a word, they released the youngsters. Petros couldn't be sure at this distance, but he thought he saw looks of shame on the faces of the bullies. They never took their gazes from Zandra.
"Feed them," she said.
The boys began to snarl. Street urchins never shared food, for good reason, and what was the point? The youngsters would starve anyway, if they didn't become food for someone else first. The red-haired boy stepped forward, his fist raised again. Zandra didn't move, but kept her eyes on his.
The boy stopped in his tracks. His hand lowered. He began to whimper like a kicked puppy. Petros's jaw dropped.
"It'll be all right," Zandra told the weeping boy.
Before Petros's unbelieving eyes, the three of them distributed the scraps among all the urchins.
All that morning he brooded about the girl, her calm courage and quiet authority. His thoughts made him bitter, and he hammered the steel as if his own soul were under the blows.
Damon made the blades destined for the Watch. He turned them out nearly uniform, bright but with a swirl of black markings along their whole length. Damon said that the oil-dipping process that drew out the dark marks also made the steel stronger, but Petros suspected that it was more of a trademark, so that people would know Damon's work.
This afternoon Petros was honing a new blade, destined for a Watcher. His arm extended and came back, slow and forceful, gentle and precise. He did not think of the man who would wield the steel, what he would do with it or the suffering that would follow. There was only the metal and the stone, his hand and his other hand, his eye and his ear, a regular rhythm.
"You're doing it again," said Zandra from behind him.
She had been so quiet that he'd forgotten she was there. Petros started. "What?"
"That song. Over and over, that song. Age begins or something. Especially in the last couple of days, right around when you left town and went to Black Hill."
He twisted around and glared at her, the sword still on the anvil in his left hand, the whetstone in his right. "You followed me."
"Only far enough to see where you were going. Why are you going there, anyway? And what's that song?"
The girl's grimy face gazed up at him without guile. He felt it again, that urge to speak, and this time the weight of three decades of secrecy and fear felt too crushing to be borne, as if he had held his breath on a dare and would pass out if he did not inhale.
"Can--can you keep a secret, Zandra?"
She assumed an almost-comical look of insulted dignity. "Of course!"
Petros put down the sword so that he could turn all the way around. He leaned forward and spoke softly, to make sure Damon wouldn't hear. "Tomorrow there'll be an eclipse of the sun over Black Hill, exactly at noon. I'm going up to watch it."
She looked disdainful. "Everyone knows there's going to be an eclipse. You don't need to go to Black Hill; you can see it from town."
He nodded. "Yes. But the prophecy said to watch it from Black Hill."
Her eyes became moons. "There was a prophecy?"
He sagged a little on his stool. "So we thought. My friend Melanion made it, more than thirty years ago." Friend! mocked the voice in his head. A true friend you were to him!
"Can I hear it? Melanion's prophesy?" asked Zandra.
"Yes, if you want," said Petros. He did not want to say the words aloud, not when they kept chanting in his head, and what good could come of repeating them to this child? But maybe it would give him some relief, like draining away poison.
"They made a song from the prophecy." Melanion's original ravings had been entirely replaced in Petros's memory by Cora's sweet voice and her fingers on the harp-strings. That is what he gave Zandra.
"Overhead like a halo that crowns righteous men,
Praise the Age that begins!
From Black Hill we watch as moon hides the sun,
Praise the Age that begins!
Three new stars rise, and the People rise with them,
Praise the Age that begins!
The victorious Dogs see their labors redeemed,
Praise the Age that begins!
The tyrants are helpless and fall into dust,
Praise the Age that begins!
The Dogs of the People bequeath a new world,
Praise the Age that begins!
We'll witness the Dawn of the Age of Three Stars,
Praise the Age that begins!"
It sounded plaintive and weak sung alone like that, hushed and fearful, without a chorus of Dogs or Cora's harp as accompaniment. But the melody was still mystic and fiery, full of a passion and hope he had tried to forget. Singing it aloud brought back the smell of wax and wine, the flushed joy and certainty on Cora's face in the candlelight. Petros wanted, right then, to die.
"Who are the Dogs?" asked Zandra. "The victorious Dogs? The Dogs of the People?"
Decades he had guarded this secret as he had guarded his shame, but the girl's grey eyes filled him with longing. He could not stop himself.
"Once there were men and women who called themselves the Dogs of the People. Sounds silly, now."
"Were you one of them?"
"I'm--I'm the last one." The last Dog, the last beaten, limping Dog. Melanion had had two swords stuck in his belly by the Watch, blood belching out of his mouth in a parody of drunken vomit. Cora--Petros closed his eyes, trying not to remember Cora, her torture and beheading that he had watched from a window like a coward. "The Bitch of the People!" the Watchers had jeered as they maimed her in the street.
And he was still here, still safe, like a dog that turns tail and runs. What would they say to him now? How did he dare to sing their anthem of hope?
Powerful as the urge was, he still had the strength to keep this shame from Zandra. She liked the song of the prophecy and promised not to tell anyone. For the rest of the day she sat in the shop and watched him, but did not imitate his actions or say a word.
Petros struggled and moaned in his sleep. In his dream, Melanion, Timothy, and Cora sang to him, the prophetic anthem, and as each one finished a line, a Watcher came up behind and sliced off his head. That's not right, Petros said in the dream. Melanion was stabbed in the belly. Melanion's severed head answered him from the ground: This is just as good. Praise the Age that begins!
Then Zandra was there too, standing merrily among the disjointed bodies of his old friends, and she sang the whole song back to him, a knowing grin on her face. The Watcher lifted his sword high, preparing to chop straight down through her skull. That was when Petros awoke, choking and whimpering.
The day of the eclipse dawned painfully clear and freezing cold. Petros worked like a sweaty demon in the forge all morning, both to warm himself and to make Damon more amenable to his leaving to see the eclipse. Lots of people would be watching it anyway, and he did not tell Damon which vantage point he had chosen. Zandra was nowhere to be seen.
An hour before noon, he left the shop and began his trek to Black Hill, occasionally looking over his shoulder and feeling foolish. The Watch was out in force in the streets, to monitor the pedestrians and those staring at the sky, to make sure that there was nothing subversive, nothing political, nothing but innocent love of nature involved. They never glanced at him.
Climbing the hill seemed harder than before; his knees moaned at every step.
The eclipse was already starting by the time he reached the top. It would take an hour altogether, the star-watchers had said, and would be total only for a few minutes in the middle. Petros did not know whether it was the whole eclipse or only the totality that mattered, but he didn't think you could see three new stars rising unless it was dark.
He circled the grove, finding the spot on the north side hidden from the town, and took out the disk of black glass that he used to look into the forge. Squinting up through the disk, he could see that a bite was already taken out of the sun. The sky, though, was still perfectly blue, with not a star in sight.
Looking up made his neck ache, and holding the glass up for long periods was tiring. Somehow Petros had expected more drama, expected the eclipse to happen more decisively than it was happening, but he felt no new disappointment. He was here to witness what none of his friends had lived to witness, if only to confirm that there were no new stars to be seen. He bent his head downward and lowered his hands to rest his neck and shoulders.
That was when he heard the Watchers.
The voices were faint, carrying a far distance in the darkling air, off to his right as if they were just around the corner of the trees. There were two or three of them. He couldn't make out what they were saying, but the cocksure tune of their growling voices told him who they were.
Petros ducked into the grove as quietly as he could, avoiding twigs and sticks, walking only on leaves or bare ground. When a few hundred paces separated him from where he'd been standing and he could make out only a few slivers of clear air through the trees, he hid behind the largest trunk he could find.
"--that's what Damon said," came one of the voices.
"But he's not here," said a second. "The smith lied."
"Not likely," said a third. "What would be the point? Maybe the old man decided not to come. Maybe he's somewhere else on the hill."
Petros could make out three of them. Even at this distance, he recognized the silver-and-black blades of Damon's forge. He might have made them himself.
"Could be in the trees," said the first voice.
"You can't see the eclipse from the woods," said the second voice. "If he came up here to see it, then he wouldn't be in there."
"Unless he heard us coming," said the first voice. Petros saw one of the figures move towards him. He tried to disappear behind the tree.
"Wait," said the second voice.
All three stopped in their tracks and were silent.
"He's coming," said one of them finally.
Petros heard nothing. Then, faintly, a voice sang, "--victorious Dogs see their labors redeemed--"
A girl's voice. Petros's heart stopped.
Zandra called out, "Pe - e - etros!" Petros shut his eyes and pressed himself into the bark of the tree.
He could not tell what happened next, but the voices of the Watch were louder, harsher, jeering, like the voices that had taunted the suffering Cora.
"A Dog of the People!" said the third voice.
"No, a pup!" said the second.
"You were looking for Petros, bitch-pup? So were we. He's up here, isn't he?"
"No," came Zandra's voice, firm but unconvincing.
Petros heard a slap.
"Don't lie to us, bitch," said the first voice. "Where is he?"
"Don't know," said Zandra.
Another slap, and then a ripping sound and a surprised shriek from the girl.
"Now we do this the hard way," said the second voice.
Petros felt the same terror he'd felt when Cora died, the same wish to be silent and invisible. But his feet had a will of their own, and he crept in the direction of the voices.
From the edge of the woods he saw them, about thirty paces away. The three Watchers surrounded Zandra, now stark naked, her torn garments on the ground. One of them held her up by the hair; another had his hand around her throat; a third held his sword-point to her belly. Her bleeding mouth was pulled into a snarl, but her eyes were terrified.
Their attention was entirely on her; none of them looked in his direction.
Before he knew what he was doing, before he could think, before any of them could notice him, Petros was behind the Watcher holding the sword, grabbed his head in both hands, and twisted sharply with all the strength in a blacksmith's arms. The neck snapped. As the man dropped and the others turned towards Petros, he snatched up the fallen sword and shoved it into the neck of the man who had been choking Zandra.
That was when he felt the impact in his back, and saw the sword-point sticking through his stomach.
"Like Melanion," he said. The point disappeared and blood gushed from his belly. He found he could not breathe, and he fell.
At the same time he heard another body fall. The third Watcher, the one who had run him through, was dead on the ground beside him, the back of his head split open. Zandra had a bloody sword gripped in her hands.
"Petros!" She dropped the blade and ran to him.
He thought his vision was darkening already, but then he realized that the eclipse had reached totality. From where he lay, he could stare straight into the shadow of the hidden sun, its yellow corona reaching into a black sky. Petros saw stars, but they were all the old, familiar ones.
Then his head was raised for him, and Zandra's face came into view; she was holding him on her knees.
"Petros," she said again.
"Good," he wheezed. "Good work."
"Want to be your apprentice," she said, tears filling her eyes. "Stay."
Petros wanted to speak, and tried to turn his head to make it easier. Then he saw, even in the ghostly light of the eclipse: just under Zandra's collarbone were three, nearly identical purple birthmarks, making a horizontal line.
Three stars.
"You--" He had to gasp, and he knew he only had a few words left. "You are."
And then he couldn't hear what she was saying, but it didn't matter. The sun was still hidden, still black against yellow against black.
They would follow her, this girl. For her the people would rise against the King and the Watch, in a way they never did for the Dogs. The tyrants would fall into dust.
Petros smiled as the sun, Zandra, everything became impossible to see. He was the last, the victorious Dog, and he bequeathed a new world. He praised the Age as it began.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 10th, 2012

Author Comments

I am old enough to remember when "Aquarius", the prophetic opening number from Hair, first played on the radio. I am also young enough to have been bitterly disappointed that none of its prophecies came true. Nowadays I cannot listen to "Aquarius" without tears--they were so young, and so full of hope, and they thought they were going to change the world. "The Age of Three Stars" expresses some of this grief at the disappointed hopes of my youth. The original cast album of Hair was the music I listened to while writing.

Ultimately, though, I could not bring myself to end on a note of hopelessness. I was also thinking of Mary Renault's The Mask of Apollo, and her protagonist's disillusionment that Plato's theories of government proved so disastrously wrong. At the end of that novel, the aged Nikeratos meets the child who will become Alexander the Great, and sees in him the divine fire that will do what Plato's logic could not. Zandra takes that role for Petros, but her future is his redemption as well.

We get enough unremitting grief and disaster in the real world; fiction must offer us something more.

- Kenneth Schneyer
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