My mother named me Husk, probably because she was too preoccupied with the corn to name a third daughter, one who was smaller and unassuming from birth, never crying or doing anything suspicious, and easily forgotten about. It was a fair enough name for one child in a mess of seven. Three sisters and three brothers. In a row, my sisters were Heather, Hazel, and the youngest was Hornet. The boys were Badger, Bluegrass, and Blessing. Good temporary names for a mess of seven black-haired brats who didn’t know who they were yet, or what they were going to be.
My name is Alto now, and I play the violin. Sometimes I miss being Husk. Husk was a strong kid with clothes ratty from the woods, mottled always with bruises, deft at climbing trees and sometimes climbing atop one of the milder-mannered dairy cows to mount the hills with the herd, and from there she watched the sun rising over the distant, deadly mountain peaks.
Sometimes I dream about those mountains (I can name them still: the Dragonhead, the Torchspine, the Widow With Tears, oh, but what are the others...?). But then I wake up, eat my oatmeal with honey and cut pears, and a servant boy with deft hand braids my hair, and someone dresses me in my favorite blue wisp of a dress, and my nails are polished. I am as much chattel as those mild-mannered cows I once tended, but I have everything, and I have Gannon.
Gannon is, oh, the fifth daughter of the second son of the third Family, and they aren’t in any kind of power, but they are rich.
I am eighteen and I have been playing for Gannon since I was sixteen. She is only a little older than me, but privately, I think she has never aged and never will. I have memorized everything about her and she is exactly the same girl whose eyes found me (just me) in the cascade of children in the orchestra, and said, “Yes, her, the one with the dark hair.”
Gannon has yellow hair, and always will. She has sad grey eyes, though she is always smiling. She has no color in her lips or in her cheeks. She is exactly like one of the weeping marble angels that line the garden. She wears black as often as she wears blue, and she is drowned by any color, and forgotten in the brilliant flowers in her hair, but I never forget.
She is beautiful and I love her. I think she knows; she must know. I drown out all the voices in our quartet with the loud courting of my violin. I sing her praises with it, much too loud, like the insistent birds outside my bedroom window. I disregard all the delicacy of my instruction. I am careless. I am inspired. I think that’s why my exasperated quartet tolerates my brazen playing; the more desperately I play, the more plaintive the sound, the more it trembles, as if at any moment it will break into screech or silence, and yet it never does, and I let every note hang in the air, as if hoping Gannon will reach out and pluck it like a fruit.
She never does. She must know I love her, and yet she sits in silence and only listens.
I am eighteen, and halfway through the second book of the Sundial, and it tells me that by now I ought to marry. I have that right.
And oh, she loves to torment me with that fact.
“How old are you now, Alto?” she asked me, as we walked the garden. She knew perfectly. She knew well enough to continue without an answer, quoting, “‘A good age to marry is eighteen, nineteen, twenty, or twenty one. Any younger is much too young, any older suggests sloth or too great a love for freedom.’“
“You think I have too great a love for freedom?” I asked, pretending indignation.
Gannon plucked a handful of blossoms from a tree as we passed underneath, and scattered them playfully at me. “To a fault!” She laughed. “I see how you watch the gates and long for the passing caravans. Given your druthers you would be a french traveler, or a bandit, I think.”
“I would rather bear arms than children,” I said, brushing petals from my skirts with dignity.
“You are an immoral character,” she said, but with admiration, and with affection.
“Immoral characters make the best violinists,” I said. “And the worst wives.”
“You know I wouldn't keep you,” she said. She stopped halfway across the bridge, to lean upon it and gaze down at the blue stream. I stopped when she stopped, looked down into the water, and tried to spot the little silver fish. Garden trees guarded the source of the stream, whose mouth I knew ran from outside the manor property, and yes, I had followed it all the way to the gates! It was true, I was restless. I am restless. Always.
“You may go home, if you like,” said Gannon. “Find a farmboy you knew from your childhood, perhaps? A drover’s son? Better yet, a young blacksmith, who shoes the lorheads of the wealthy as they pass through the village.”
I stared at her silhouette, where she was framed against the blue sky, the same blue as my dress. I imagined going home in that blue frippery, imagined taking it off and donning the- the- whatever it was that the wife of a blacksmith wore.
“Everything I want is here,” I said.
Gannon turned, and she reached for me, and clasped my hands.
We stood alone upon the bridge.
A strand of her yellow hair had come loose from its neatly braided crown. I longed to undo it all, to see how long her hair really was, and to wind my fingers in its softness, to count it strand by strand, hour by hour.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, at once sounding very somber. “I would never send you away. The city is your home now as much as it is mine.” She met my eyes as she had that first time we met, seeing me as a girl, or a woman, and not an instrument. “I know many sons of the city, many with similar estates; any of them would marry you. Even if you are a shepherd and bandit at heart.”
I pulled my hands away from her, and scowled at her laughing face. “You’re cruel,” I accused.
“I would never send you away, but you are welcome to leave your cruel mistress, if you like.” There was mischief in her eyes— and she called me the bandit!
I forgave her teases, as I always did and always would, and we celebrated my birthday with the other girls and young women of the estate. We draped blankets upon the lawn, posted with parasols, and plagued by small dogs gamboling about and trying to steal bits of cake. The white walls and wreathed colonnades of the main house framed the scene. Willow trees hid the tall gates, giving the illusion of vast freedom in the countryside, and contributing to the illusion lay Gannon, with her head resting in my lap. She had finally undone the great mass of her bound hair and abandoned her shawl, and I ran my fingers through her hair at last. So preoccupied, I almost missed the murmurs of the other girls— but Gannon did not.
She opened one eye against the sunlight. “Faran, what did you say?”
Faran, the cellist with the enormous dark eyes and darker complexion, dressed today in pale green, covered her mouth. The pied hound (he would grow enormous some day, but now he was only a puppy, and a clumsy fat one) stole the last of her cake and began to sneeze peach frosting.
“I heard a rumor,” said Faran, looking a little pleased to be the source of it. “That there is a night rider boarding here, in the city.”
“Impossible,” said Yane, the ever surly, chestnut-headed flutist. “The sun has been out for weeks, and it’s more than a day’s ride to forest cover.”
“Not for one of Them,” said Faran, and most of the girls fell quiet. They knew very little about Them— just enough to be wary of the reference. “Have you ever seen one at full speed?”
“No, and neither have you.” Yane was cross.
“I have,” said Faran. She was usually a jovial girl, but now she was somber, something in her expression harkening back to whatever child she had been before the convents and the estates. I had never learned where she came from, I realized. Faran rarely spoke of her youth. “On the Black Way, headed north.”
Every gaze was riveted, every pair of lips, slightly parted.
Faran was no longer enjoying her gossip; she was seeing something distant now, gazing into memory, into something she had thought forgotten. “It was taller than any living thing I’d ever seen. It appeared on the horizon, and then it was past, and over the hill before I could even see it. I didn’t hear a sound. Its hooves might have never touched the ground, it was that fast.”
I was silent, and not as rapt as the others. I looked down at Gannon, who had closed her eyes. Was she listening? She looked as though she may have fallen asleep, just dropped away in the sunlight. I didn’t want to hear stories of night riders and superstitious creatures.
It reminded me too much of my mother. My mother, and my nights on the hills, watching the mountaintops.
'And they came from the mountains, those crawling things, hungry for blood and for human touch, although it was repellant to their nature…’
“It’s true,” said Gannon suddenly. “The rider’s name is Khoeveld. I offered him our hospitality. He refused very politely. I don’t know the nature of his Beast, but he is a good man, and he does his duty well.”
She opened one sly eye.
“Would you like to meet him?”