“Far from being amh, they are worse than llew, because they kill our young and force us to raise their own. Larger, heavier, they take more food and more care than our own young do. They may not eat us, as llew would, but they devour all the same.” Yn said.

“But surely,” asked Echyd, “surely we can tell the difference. Their eggs would be larger too, yes?”

Yn puffed up, the old sparrow shuddering from wingtips to tail. “Sometimes they are. But the cowbirds will keep a keen watch on their brood, and if you eject their egg, they will descend upon the nest and destroy it–killing all your true young and perhaps even yourself as well. It is the implicit threat they hold over all of us, and they have been growing in numbers every season.”

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The Tale of Brnin, Riau of the Sparrows

In the oldest times of which out legends speak, the time of the Fledging, birds were the only beasts that roamed the earth. All else was small and scuttling ysgly, prey, or esgyn, the perches that grow and sway and bring forth bountiful harvests of food. The affairs of birds were managed by the Great Council, which selected one of its members to rule for four seasons. The Great Council consisted of the largest and heartiest of birds; some like the eagles and owls were faethwr, predators on their fellow-birds, while others like the crows and gulls were amh, and had no interest in eating other birds but would steal from them and defend themselves against incursion.

No sparrows sat on the Great Council, for they were too small; their interests were represented by the larger amh. Each member of the Council was the riau, or king, of their race. The riau came to power in various ways: the eagles sent their best hunter, the owls sent their eldest, the crows sent their cleverest speaker, and the gulls sent the seniormost of their line of albatross-princes.

Brnin, the largest and strongest sparrow the world has ever seen, was well-known even then to his people. He approached the riau of the crows, asking for the Council’s blessing to recognize him as riau of the sparrows. The crow asked why a race which did not sit on the Council needed a riau at all; Brnin replied that by speaking with a single voice, the sparrows could make their wishes more easily known. This would reduce the number of petitions the crow-riau would receive, and Brnin accompanied his request with a large offering of foodstuffs and shiny trinkets of the sort crows are known to favor. The crow-riau took his request to the Council and they agreed that the sparrows might name a riau of their choosing, endorsing Brnin as the one so chosen.

I don’t need to tell you of Brnin’s great and powerful deeds, from outfoxing the Great White Owl to securing for his people the Fields of Endless Ysgly and the Bountiful Esgyn of the Many Berries. He was therefore acclaimed as riau of the sparrows by the elders of every flock. But then a curious thing happened. Whereas before Brnin had sought to strengthen his flock and other sparrows, he now increasingly sought only to maintain and expand his power. He took for himself the best hens from every flock and tribe, intimidating their mates through his large size and numerous followers. He began replacing the elders of flocks and tribes that displeased him or refused to obey his wishes, often appointing much younger and inexperienced–but loyal–birds to those positions. He demanded of every flock and tribe a tribute in imperishable seed, soon accumulating more than he or his many chicks and hens could ever eat.

These actions occurred gradually, not overnight, but they were anathema to the sparrows nonetheless. A sparrow is loyal to its hen and she to he; Brnin’s harem was a mockery of this. A sparrow eats no more than it needs to support itself and its hen and its chicks; Brnin’s hoarding was a mockery of this. But the bird that snapped the branch came much later, when Brnin chose from among his many sons a particularly large specimen who greatly resembled his father. The sparrow-riau declared that he would be succeeded by this chick, known as Tywy, rather than any of the elders or heroes that sparrowkind had produced during his reign. The elders balked at this, pointing out that Brnin himself had obtained his position through deeds, not through birth, but the sparrow-riau ignored them. Eventually, a delegation of elders presented Brnin with an ultimatum: disinherit Tywy or lose their loyalty.

Brnin’s response cemented how far he had fallen: he slew the foremost of the elders in single combat. This violence had no precedent among his kind, and had a great impression on Tywy. The would-be riau by birth condemned his father as a faethwr, a predator, and in turn slew him in a great battle which lasted nearly a month. Impressed by this deed, the elders offered Tywy the crown–through his deeds, they thought he had earned what they once thought him unworthy of. Tywy instead declared himself faethwr for the crime of killing his father, who had once been a great hero, and declared that henceforth the sparrows would have no riau, only elders. He dispersed his father’s hens and his many siblings, gave away the great store of hoarded seeds, and departed, never to be seen again.

For his deeds, the elders named Tywy riau of his people; in the absence of sure news of his death, most sparrows consider that he holds the position to this day. That is why no sparrow has ever sought to be riau again, and why Tywy’s name is often invoked alongside Ellw’s as the greatest hero known to sparrows. Brnin’s is no less popular in the telling, serving as an example through his great deeds but also a warning in his precipitous fall into selfishness and vanity.

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There was a time long ago when sparrows had no personal names. They all addressed one another as “Sparrow,” which caused no end of confusion; in fact, legend held that sparrows did not flock in those days but were strictly solitary, never associating with one another save to bear young. The elders spoke of these as dark days, when four-leg and two-leg predators had their way and no sparrow stood a chance once it had attracted their baleful gaze.

Then the hero known as Ellw discovered the secret to personal names, to telling one sparrow from another, and flocking together for protection in numbers from the four-legs and the two-legs. The tales disagreed as to how Ellw came upon these secrets, and the storytellers were usually at pains to share the different interpretations–the debate it provoked served to draw their listeners in further. Some said that Ellw had discovered these things through natural genius. Others claimed that he had learnt to speak with another creature, such as the cooing bob-heads or the shrieking whitings, who had revealed the secrets. There were even those who claimed Ellw learned to listen to the two-leg striders–to base predators, llew–in a corner of a far-off island, stealing their names for righteous use.

Regardless of which version of the tale was offered, the end was the same: Ellw’s teaching spread far and wide in the World Beneath, and today he was regarded as the father of all sparrows in spirit if not in fact.  Some rejected Ellw’s ways, others sought to improve or modify them, but rare indeed were few isolated sparrows who had not heard them.

Over time, as their panic faded, the lost sparrows of Clan Oesoedd began to understand that they had been strangely blessed. Although sealed into the home of the giant hawks by the mysterious solid air with no hope of escape, they came to realize that it was a land of abundance.

The great striders moved in large numbers but also dropped vast amounts of food, indifferently leaving it as they strode off to be devoured by the giant hawks. They, unlike the striders in the World Beneath, never sought to harm the Oesoedd–the only danger was their innate clumsiness. Some even fed the sparrows, and all their leavings were carried away by slow, whining strider-piloted behemoths.

Echyd busied himself exploring the vast spaces and found a number of trees. Some were mock trees of the kind old Yn had once spoken of, but others were real and suitable for nesting. Chwi and Awr put a nest together as an experiment, to see whether the great striders would react violently as they sometimes did. Filled with unfertilized eggs, the nest lay undisturbed, and Chwi was granted permission to bring forth a brood.

Perhaps the greatest benefit Echyd and the Oesoedd sparrows came to recognize was the lack of llew, predators. The giant hawks came and went, devouring striders and regurgitating them for some unseen young, but seemed to take no notice of tiny sparrows, and certainly did not hunt them as the llew hawks did in the World Beneath. Dai and Ac even took to watching the hawks’ inscrutable movements, claiming that it inspired them. And there were no llew cats or llew dogs of any kind, save the very occasional one in a cage–a situation Echyd found devastatingly funny, given Yn’s tales of sparrows held captive by the striders in such cages.