Then Great Alta looked down upon her messengers, those whom she had severed from her so that they might be bound more closely to her. She looked upon the white sister and the dark, the young sister and the old.
“I shall not speak to you that you may hear. I shall not show myself to you that you may see. For a child must be set free to find her own destiny, even if that destiny be the one the mother has foretold.”
And then Great Alta made the straight path crooked before them and the crooked path straight. She set traps for them and pits that they might be comforted when they escaped, that they might remember her loving kindness and rejoice in it.
It was in the town of Slipskin, now called New Moulting, soft into the core of the new year’s spring, that three young women, and one of them White Jenna, rode out upon a great gray horse.
His back was as broad as a barn door, his withers could not be spanned. Each hoof struck fire from the road. Where his feet paced, there crooked paths were made smooth and mountains laid low, straight paths were pitted and gullies cut from the hills.
There are folk in New Moulting who say it was no horse at all, but a beast sent by Alta herself to carry them over the miles. There are footprints still near the old road into Slipskin, carved right into the stone. And downriver, in the town of Selden, there are three great ribs of the thing set over the church door that all might see them and wonder.
The road was a gray ribbon in the moonlight, threading between trees. Five women stood on the road, listening to a ululating cry behind them.
Two of the women, Catrona and Katri, were clearly middle-aged, with lines like runes across their brows. They had short-cropped hair and wore their swords with a casual authority.
The youngest, Petra, stood with her shoulders squared. There was a defiance in the out-thrust of her chin, but her eyes were softer and her tongue licked her lips nervously.
Jenna was the extremely tall girl, not yet a woman for all that her hair was as white as the moonlight. Whiter, as it had no shadows. The other tall girl, but a hairbreadth smaller, and a bit thinner, and dark, was Skada.
“I will miss the sound of their voices,” Jenna said.
“I will not,” Skada answered. “Voices have a binding power. It is best for us to look ahead now. We are messengers, not memorizers.”
“And we have far to go,” Catrona said. “With many Hames to warn.” She drew a map from her leather pocket and spread the crackling parchment upon the ground. With Katri’s help she smoothed it out and pointed to a dark spot. “We are here, Selden Hame. The swiftest route would be there, down the river road into Selden itself, across the bridge. Then we go along the river with our backs to the Old Hanging Man, never losing sight of these twin peaks.” She pointed to the arching lines on the map.
“Alta’s Breast,” said Skada.
“You learned your lessons well,” said Katri.
“What Jenna knows, I know.“
Catrona continued moving her finger along the route. “The road goes on and on, with no forks or false trails to this Hame.” Her finger tapped the map twice and Katri’s did the same.
“Calla’s Ford Hame,” said Jenna. “Where Selinda and Alna have begun their mission year. It will be good to see them. I have missed them…”
“But not much,” murmured Skada.
“Is it the best place to start?” Jenna asked. “Or should we go farther out? Closer to the king’s court?”
Catrona smiled. “The Hames are in a great circle. Look here.” And she pointed to one after another, calling out the names of the Hames as if in a single long poem. “Selden, Calla’s Ford, Wilma’s Crossing, Josstown, Calamarie, Carpenter‘s, Krisston, West Dale, Annsville, Crimerci, Lara’s Well, Sammiton, East James, John-o-the-Mill’s, Carter’s Tracing, North Brook, and Nill’s Hame. The king’s court is in the center.”
“So none will complain if we visit Calla’s Ford first,” Katri said, her finger resting, as did Catrona‘s, on the last Hame. “As it is closest.”
“And as our own Hame’s children are there,” added Catrona.
“But we must be quick,” Jenna reminded them all.
Catrona and Katri stood simultaneously, Catrona folding the map along its old creases. She put it back in the leather pocket and handed it to Petra.
“Here, child, in case we should be parted from one another,” Catrona said.
“But I am the least worthy,” Petra said. “Should not Jenna… ”
“Now that Jenna has seen the map once, she has it for good. She is warrior -trained in the EyeMind Game and could recite the names and places for you even now. Am I right, Jenna?” Catrona asked.
Jenna hesitated for a moment, seeing again the map as it had lain under Catrona’s hands. She began to recite slowly but with complete confidence, outlining as she spoke with her foot in the road’s dirt, “Selden, Calla’s Ford, Wilma’s Crossing, Josstown…”
“I believe you,” said Petra, holding out her hand. “I will take the map.” She tied the leather pocket’s strings around her belt.
They started off down the road, walking steadily, each an arm’s length apart. There was little sound in their going and Catrona on the right and Jenna on the far left kept careful watch of the road’s perimeter. Only young Petra, in the center, seemed in the least uneasy. Once or twice she turned to look behind them, back toward the place where the long, low cry of the Selden Hame farewell had echoed.
Anna at the Turning
Gray in the moonlight, green in the sun,
Dark in the evening, bright in the dawn,
Ever the meadow goes endlessly on,
And Anna at each turning.
Sweet in the springtide, sour in fall,
Winter casts snow, a white velvet caul.
Passage in summer is swiftest of all,
And Anna at each turning.
Look to the meadows and look to the hills,
Look to the rocks where the swift river spills,
Look to the farmland the farmer still tills
For Anna is returning.
They stopped only once in the woods to sleep under a blackthorn tree by a swift-flowing stream. Taking turns, they kept the night watch, leaving Petra the shortest time, and that near dawn when she would have awakened anyway. Besides, as Catrona reminded them, with the moon they watched in pairs and Petra was alone.
There was nothing to disturb their rest except the mourning of owls back and forth across the stream, and the constant murmur of the water. Once on Jenna and Skada’s watch, there was a light crackle of underbrush.
“Hare,” Jenna whispered to her dark sister, alert for more.
“Hare,” Skada agreed. They both relaxed. Slightly.
By early eve of the next day they had passed the outlying farms of Slipskin, neatly tilled land, well cleared of rocks and roots by generations of farmers. Each acre was gently fuzzed over with green. In one field twenty horses were pastured on blue-green grass.
“There,” said Catrona, “a man who sells horses. Probably supplies the king. We could borrow one or two and he would never know the difference.”
Petra shook her head. “We had horses and flocks at my Hame. Believe me, our shepherds knew every beast by name.”
Catrona snorted. “I know that, child. Just testing.”
“I will not ride a horse again,” Jenna said. “Once was enough.”
“I doubt we could get three off him anyway,” Catrona said. “But if we could get one, one of us could ride ahead. We need swiftness whatever the cost.”
Unhappily, Jenna had to agree.
“Let me do the talking,” Catrona added. “I have spent much time among men and know what to say.”
“I have spent no time at all with them,” admitted Petra.
Jenna said nothing, but her finger strayed to her lips and she was glad that it was still daylight and Skada not there to remind her just what she had—and had not—said to Carum when he had kissed her. Two men she had known: one she had kissed and one she had killed. She knew as little as Petra. “Yes, you speak,” she said to Catrona. “We will wait behind.”
“But mind you, look fetching,” said Catrona.
“Fetching?” Jenna asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Men like that.” Catrona threw back her head, laughing loudly.
Although they weren’t sure what Catrona meant by fetching, both Jenna and Petra managed to smile at the farmer when he opened the dark wood door. He stared at them for a moment, as if unsure of what he was seeing, then called over his shoulder, “Marline, Martine, come quick.”
“What is it?” a voice called from the room behind him.
He did not speak again until his wife, a rosy giantess, stood next to him, a full head higher than his own balding crown.
“There, the big girl, look at ’er. Look, woman.”
She stared as well.
“We are Alta’s own,” Catrona began, stopping when she saw that they were paying no attention to her but were rather staring at Jenna. She spoke again, loudly. “My name is Catrona, from Selden Hame. My sisters and I…”
“By the blessing, Geo, you are right. Who else could it be,” the farmer’s wife said, her cheeks bright red. “Except for the hair, she’s the spit of my poor dead sister.”
Catrona suddenly understood. “You think Jenna a fosterling from your family? Of all houses, that we should have stopped here.”
“Naaa, naaa,” the farmer said, shaking his head and sounding remarkably like a penned beast. “She has eleven sisters, and all the same. Not fifty years ago the hillsides would’ve been full of ’em. But we got low on girls ’round here and so now girls is a commodity. You be thinking of staying, I could set you up with good husbands.” He shook his head again. “Well, the niece, maybe, and the little one there. We need breeders, you know. That’s why Marline’s sisters, they all got spoke for early. Good stock. Not a holding this side of the Slip don’t house one of ’em. T’would be harder to miss one than find one, as they say of blackbirds in a flock. It would be…”
Martine pushed her husband aside and walked past Catrona to Jenna’s side. Together, their relationship was obvious. “She has the Dougal height, the Hiat eyes, remember Geo like you said when we was courtin‘, my eyes was dark eyes of a spring. And my sister Ardeen went white afore she was fifteen, and my sister Jarden afore she was twenty. Give your aunt a hug, girl.”
Jenna did not move, her mind whirling.
“Her mother was bringing her to us to foster, out in the woods when a cat killed her,” Catrona said. “My own sisters gave yours a decent grave and said the words you like over her. Her fosterer died, or I would tell her of you.”
“Nonsense!” Martine said, turning from Jenna to speak directly to Catrona. “Her mother died at birth. Lay there bleeding like a pig stuck for market while the mid-wife bore the child away. If your sister fostered her, then … ” She stopped a minute and counted on her fingers. “One for my poor dead sister, two for the midwife, and three be your sister. Oh, my Blessed be!” She dropped suddenly to her knees, her hands covering her mouth. “The White One, triple mothered. Of my own flesh and blood. Who could have guessed?”
Her husband went down more slowly, as if he had been pole-axed, and buried his face in his hands.
Jenna rolled her eyes up and sighed. She heard Petra’s quick intake of breath and priestess voice behind her.
“Stop that,” she hissed back at the girl.
From her knees, Martine heard only the rhyme. She put her hands up, palms together, and cried out, “Yes, yes, that’s it. Oh, White One, what can we do? What can we say?”
“As for what you can do,” Catrona said quickly, “you can give us three good horses, for we are on a great mission of mercy and it would not do for the White One to walk. And as for what you can say, you can say yes to us and no to any man who asks.”
“Yes, yes,” Martine cried again, and when her husband did not answer fast enough, she elbowed him.
He rose, still not looking again at Jenna, and mumbled, “Yes, yes, I can give you three. And they will be good. Anyone says Geo Hosfetter gives not good horses is…” He sidled out of the door still talking. They could hear his footsteps going away at a run.
“I will go and help him choose,” said Catrona.
“Let the White One stay a moment more,” begged Martine. “She is my own flesh, my own blood. Let her tell me her own tale. I have tea. I have cakes.” She gestured in toward the neat, well-lit kitchen.
Jenna opened her mouth to accept and Petra whispered by her ear, “Dark sisters will be there. Let me talk.” Jenna closed her mouth and looked stern.
“The White One does not break bread with any. She fasts on this mission and has taken a vow of silence until it is done. I am Her priestess and Her mouth.”
Jenna rolled her eyes up again, but kept silent.
“Of course, of course,” Martine said, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Better that you tell Her all you know so She may weigh its significance.”
“Of course, of course,” Martine said again. “What shall I tell? That my sister, the White One’s mother, was tall and red-haired and made, we all thought, like the rest of us for easy birthing. But something was twisted up there. She died giving the child life. And then that wicked midwife stole the babe away, afore any of us got to see it. We knew the child was a girl because she told her own daughter she was taking it to one of the…you know…Homes.”
“Hames,” Petra corrected automatically.
“The closest one. Up the road and into the mountains, it was.”
“Selden Hame,” Petra prompted.
But the woman could only tell the story in her own meandering way. “Selling the babe, most likely. Some midwives be like that, you know.” Suddenly afraid she might have offended them, she added quickly, “Not that you Alters buy children. Not that.”
“We reap the hillsides; we do not pay the sowers,” said Petra.
“I meant that. Yes, I did.” Martine’s hands wrangled with one another.
“And the father?”
“Died not a year later. Heart broken. Lost wife and child all to once. And crazed. Saw Alter women everywhere, he did. On the farm. At the hearth. In his bed. Two at a time. Double crazed he was.” She shook her head. “Poor man.”
“Poor man,” Petra echoed, her voice soothingly soft.
Jenna bit her lip. Her mother. Her father. She tried to credit it and could not. Her mother had not lived under such a cozy, thatched roof, dying with her thighs covered in blood. Her mothers—and there were many of them—lived in Selden Hame. And they would not die in blood if she could help it. She turned abruptly and left Marline of the wrangling hands to Petra’s comforting. Striding quickly across the farmyard, she headed toward the barn.
The sky above was a steely blue, and a bright pink sat on the horizon behind the barn and the fields. Once the sun slipped below the world’s rim, there would be another hour before dark. And then there would be a moon. With the moon, the dark sisters Skada and Karri would reappear. Petra had been right to warn her about going into the candle-lit kitchen. Hearthlight and candlelight could also call the sisters out. No need to frighten these poor, silly strangers. Strangers! Jenna tried to force herself to think of them as her aunt and uncle. No, there was no blood between them. None at all. It was a mistake, that was all. But a mistake that was bringing them three horses. Horses! She never wanted to ride one of those broad-beamed, hard-on-the-rear, teeth-rattling beasts again.
Just as she thought of them, from behind the barn came Catrona leading three sleek mares, two reddish brown and one almost pure white. The farmer strode behind her looking, somehow, relieved. When Catrona spotted Jenna, she grinned, then quickly composed her mouth into a more respectful expression.
“Do these meet your approval, White One?” she asked Jenna.
Jenna nodded. The snow-colored mare threw her head back and whinnied.
“The white is yours, Anna,” said Catrona. “The man insists on it.” She held out the reins. “And he takes no coin for them.”
Jenna drew in a deep breath, willing herself to like the horse. Reaching for the reins, she pulled on them gently and the horse took a few steps toward her. She patted it on the neck and the horse nuzzled her ear. Jenna smiled tentatively.
“See, White One,” Geo Hosfetter said, still not looking directly at her, “the horse knows that she is yours.” He bobbed his head twice. “Her name is…”
“Her old name does not matter,” Petra said suddenly from behind Jenna. “She shall have a new one. For, as you know, it says in the prophecy:
The White One, the Anna,
Shall ride, shall ride,
And sisters with Her
Side by side.
The horse She sits on
It will be called…DUTY!”
“Oh, yes, oh yes,” Martine said, hurrying up to them, “I know that. Duty, that’s the name. Of course. Duty.”
“Duty!” Jenna said, laughing, once they had ridden away from the farm. “What kind of a name is Duty?”
“And where did you learn that prophecy? I never heard it,” Catrona said.
“It was the best I could do at the moment’s spur,” Petra admitted. “I apologize for that sixth line. It was a bit…well…shaky.”
“You mean you made it up?” Catrona shook her head.
Petra, nodding vigorously, smiled.
“It is a special trick of hers,” Jenna said. “She was famous for it at Nill’s Hame. Prophecies and poetry on the moment. But, Petra—Duty
“Never mind,” Petra answered. “They will tell their neighbors and the story will grow and grow. By the time you hear it again, you will be mounted on Beauty or on Booty and the tale will add that the White One, Blessed be, rode off, pockets ajingle with coin or followed by one hundred men all crying out with love,”
“Or they will call the horse Dirty, which she will surely be, for we will have little time to keep her clean.” Jenna pulled on her right braid. “So why did you get me a white horse, Catrona?”
“He insisted on it. ‘The white one for the White One,’ he said. ‘And a pair of matched bays for her servants.’”
“Servants!” Petra shouted. At her voice the little bay mare startled and tried to bolt and it took a mighty sawing on the reins to control her. When the horse was steady again, Petra shrugged ruefully at her friends.
“I would not trust that horse in a fight,” Jenna said.
“But she should run like the wind,” Catrona pointed out. “Look at her legs. And as they say in the Dales, The gift horse is the swifter.”
“Then let her show us her heels,” said Jenna. “We have no more time for talking.”
They kicked their mounts into trots.
* * *
They were just through the town of Selden, with its neat little houses lining the cobbled lanes, and starting over the new bridge, when the partial moon rose. By its light, Skada and Karri reappeared, riding double-behind their light sisters.
Jenna knew Skada was there by the familiar breath behind her; the horse knew sooner because of the added weight. It slowed its pace to accommodate the second body but did not flinch.
“Fine horse,” Skada whispered in Jenna’s ear.
Turning her head slightly, Jenna said, “What do you know about horses, fine or otherwise?”
“I may know little, but at least I am not set against them for no reason.”
“No reason!” Jenna said. “Ask my bottom and ask my thighs about reasons.” But she said no more and focused her attention on the long bridge as they clattered across.
Once they were on the other side, Catrona signaled them to stop. They dismounted and left the horses to graze on the roadside grass.
“Why did we stop?” Petra asked. In the moonlight her face had a carved look. Her hair, which had been tightly braided and crowned, had shaken loose of its pins and the plaits now fell down along her spine. There were dark circles under her eyes, but Jenna could not tell if they were from weariness or sorrow. She put her arm around the girl’s shoulder and Skada, like a parenthesis, closed her in from the other side.
“Horses, like humans, need to rest,” Jenna reminded her. “It would not do to kill them on the very first day.”
“Nor ourselves,” Catrona said, stretching. “It has been a long time since I have ridden a horse. Those are not muscles I exercise regularly.” She bent over and put her palms on the ground and Katri did the same.
“My horse is not tired,” said Petra.
“He carries one. Ours will have to carry two through a night of strong moonlight,” Skada said. “Unfortunately no one has ever trained horses to call up their shadows.”
“Are there horses where you come from?” Petra asked.
“We have what you have,” said Katri. “But we leave it behind to come here.”
Catrona rubbed her horse’s nose and the horse responded by nuzzling her. “We will go another few hours and then sleep.” She held the horse’s head between her hands and blew gently into its nostrils. “This rest is just for breathing.”
“And for bottoms,” Jenna and Skada said together.
Petra laughed, but Catrona and Katri stared up at the sky.
“Look,” Katri said. “See how the moon sits on the Old Hanging Man’s brow.”
They looked. The cliffs, with their wild jut of stone, seemed crowned with the moon. A shred of cloud was just beginning to cross the moon’s spotty face.
“I think it will cloud over soon,” Catrona said.
“That will be for the good,” added Katri.
“But then you and Skada…” Jenna began.
“…will be gone,” Catrona finished. “But since we are just riding, not fighting, the horses will have an easier time of it.”
“As will we,” Skada said.
“No sore bottoms.” Jenna laughed.
“No sore…” Skada started to say, but just then the cloud covered the moon and she was gone.
“Mount up,” called Catrona, vaulting onto her horse’s back.
Jenna and Petra had slightly more trouble climbing back on theirs. Finally Jenna held the bay’s reins while Petra got on. Then she caught her own horse and handed its reins to Petra.
“Steady her,” Jenna said.
“Talking to your servant?” asked Petra.
“Please,” said Jenna.
“Duty awaits,” Petra joked. “So, Jenna, go to your Duty!”
“Enough,” Jenna said. When she was up at last, the reins gathered back in her own hands, Jenna looked down the road. Catrona was already around the first bend, Petra halfway there. Jenna kicked her heels into Duty’s white sides, and the horse started bouncing along. Gritting her teeth, Jenna kicked harder. This time the horse took off at a gallop, sending clouds of dust behind them, obscuring even the dark silhouette of the Old Hanging Man.
Ballad of the Twelve Sisters
There were twelve sisters by a lake,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
A handsome sailor one did take,
And that day a child was born.
A handsome sailor one did wed,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
The other sisters wished her dead
On the day the child was born.
“Oh, sister, give me your right hand,”
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
Eleven to the one demand
On the day the child was born.
They laid her down upon the hill,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
And took her babe against her will
On the day the child was born.
They left her on the cold hillside,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
Convinced that her new babe had died
On the day the child was born.
She wept red tears, and she wept gray,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
Till she had wept her life away,
On the day her child was born.
The sailor’s heart it broke in two,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
The sisters all their act did rue
From the day the child was born.
And from their graves grew rose and briar,
Rosemary, bayberry, thistle and thorn,
Twined till they could grow no higher,
From the day the child was born.
“I am sorry,” Jenna said. “I have acted foully since we left the Hame. It is as if my tongue and my mind have no connection. I cannot think what makes me act this way.”
They had stopped for the night, scarcely a hundred feet off the road, in a small clearing only slightly larger than a room. There was a rug-sized meadow with great oaks overarching it, branches laced together like a cozy roof. Still, Catrona would not let them light a fire for fear of alerting any passersby.
They ate their dark traveling bread and the last of the cheese in silence. Nearby the horses grazed contentedly, hobbled by braided vines. When they had first dismounted, Catrona had shown them how to twist the green rope and secure it to the horses’ front feet, tight enough to keep the horses from running off, slack enough so that they did not stumble.
Jenna decided, after much thought, that the slow, steady crunching progress the horses made was a comforting sound, not annoying. But she felt neither steady nor particularly happy about her own progress the past few days. An apology was necessary, and so she offered it.
“What is there to be sorry about?” asked Catrona. “You have slept little and seen too much this past fortnight. You have been torn from and shorn of much you know. Your young life has been turned completely upsidedown.”
“You speak of Petra, not of me,” Jenna said, shaking her head. “And yet her mood remains sunny.”
“What is it they say in the Lower Dales? That: A crow is not a cat, nor does it bear kits. Jenna, if you were Petra, you would be sunny despite all. It is her way. But you are Jenna of Selna’s line…” Catrona said.
“But I am not of Selna’s line,” Jenna interrupted. “Not truly.” Appalled at the whine in her voice, she buried her face in her hands, as much in shame as in sorrow.
“So. That is it.” Catrona chuckled. “How can White Jenna, the Anna, the mighty warrior who killed the Hound and cut off the Bull’s hand, as in the prophecies; who has ridden off to save the world of the Hames with her companions by her side; how could she have been born between the thighs of a woman like that.” She jerked her head back to indicate the direction from which they had just come. “But, Jenna, it is bearing, not blood, that counts. You are a true daughter of the Hames. As am I.”
“Do you know your mother?” Jenna asked, her voice quiet.
“Seventeen generations of them,” Catrona said placidly. “As do you. I remember you reciting them, and never a hesitation.”
Petra spoke for the first time. “And I can say my lines, too, Jenna, though my birth mother left me at the Hame doorstep when I was not yet weaned, with a note that said only, ’My man will not abide another such as this.’”
“I know,” Jenna said, her voice a misery. “I know all the tales. I know that half the daughters of the Hames come there abandoned or betrayed. Or both. And it never bothered me until now.”
“Until that silly woman and her sillier husband claimed you,” Petra said, moving next to Jenna and stroking her hair. “But their claim is water, Jenna. And you are stone. Water flows over stone and moves on. But the stone remains.”
“She is right, Jenna,” Catrona said. “And you are wrong to worry over such nonsense. You have more mothers than you can count, and yet you count that story more than all the rest.”
“I will count it no longer,” Jenna said. She stood, brushed the cheese and bread crumbs from her breast, and stretched. “I shall take the first watch.” She looked up at the heavy lacings of the oak and the one small patch of cloud-covered sky, then sighed and stared down at her hands. The ring on her littlest finger, the one the priestess had given her to use as identification, was a reminder of her task. She should think of that, and not of this other silliness. At least, she thought, Skoda is not here to bruise me about it.
But the watch seemed longer without Skada’s company, and despite her promise not to think about Martine and Geo Hosfetter—their names as silly as their manners—she could think of nothing else. If she had stayed with her true mother, her birth mother, she would surely have been as awful as they. She spent her watch braiding and unbraiding her long white hair and musing about a life she had never lived.
* * *
Morning began with a noisy fanfare of birdsong from a dozen different tiny throats, mellow and chipping, thin and full. Jenna sat up for a moment and just listened, trying to distinguish one from another.
“Warblers,” Catrona whispered to her. “Can you tell them?”
“I know the one that Alna called Salli‘s, that one, there.” She raised her hand, finger extended, at a single, melodious call.
“Good.” Catrona nodded. “And what about that one, with the little brrrrrrup at the end.”
“Maybe a yellow-rump?” Jenna guessed.
“Good twice. Three times and 1 will admit you are my equal in the woods,” Catrona said. “There—that one!” The call was thinner than the last two, and abrupt.
“Yellow throat…no, wait, that is a…” Jenna shook her head. “I guess I am not yet as good as you are.”
“That was a Marget’s warbler, after which Amalda named your best friend. It is good to know that I am still needed in the woods.” She smiled. “Wake Petra while I see what there is to offer for hungry travelers.” She disappeared behind a large oak.
Petra, who had had the middle watch, was curled up in her blanket, the waterfall of her hair obscuring her face; Jenna shook her gently.
“Up, mole, into the light. We have much traveling yet.”
Petra stretched, bound up her hair quickly into two plaits, and stood. She looked around for Catrona.
“Food,” Jenna said, motioning to her mouth.
As if the word itself had summoned her, Catrona appeared, but so silently, even the horses did not notice. She carried three eggs,
“One each, and there is a stream not far from here. We will water the horses and fill our flasks. If we ride quickly, we will make the Hame by midday.” She gave an egg to each girl, keeping the smallest for herself.
Jenna took her throwing knife from her boot and poked a hole in the top of the egg, then handed the knife to Petra. As Petra worked the blade point into her egg, Jenna sucked out the contents of her own. It slid down easily and she was hungry enough not to mind the slippery taste.
“I will lead the horses,” Catrona said. “You, Jenna, and you, Petra, pack up the rest of the gear. And do what you can to make it hard to read our signs. With horses that is difficult, I know.”
She led the three horses away. Using branches as brooms, Jenna and Petra followed right after. There were no fire remains to disguise, but much evidence of the horses and their browsing which could not be totally erased. Still, the signs could be confused, and Jenna did what was possible. Perhaps an incompetent tracker might think a herd of deer had grazed through.
At the stream they washed quickly, less for the cleanliness and more for morale. Jenna filled their leather flasks while Petra kept a watch on the horses. Catrona went ahead to scout to make sure their return to the road would not be noted.
When Catrona came back, they pulled the reluctant horses from the water, mounted up with more facility than grace, and started off, Catrona in the lead once more.
* * *
The sun was high overhead and they had passed no one on the road. The one small town they had ridden through had been strangely deserted. Even the mill by the river had been empty of people, though the water kept the wheel turning on its own.
“How odd,” had been Catrona’s only comment.
Jenna’s thoughts were darker than that, for the last time she had been where all motion and sound had seemed to stand still had been at Nill’s Hame when she returned to find death the only occupant. Yet there were no bodies lying about the town, no blood spilling along the millrace. She breathed slowly, deliberately.
Petra’s face was unreadable and Jenna said nothing, worrying more about her friend’s silence than the silence in the town.
They rode on, till they came to the ford after which Calla’s Ford was named. The pull-line ferry waited on the far side of the river but there was no ferryman in sight. Together Catrona and Jenna hauled on the thick line and the flat-bottomed ferry slowly moved across the water on its tether.
When it grounded, they walked their horses onto the boat in silence. Even with the weight of three horses and three women, the boat rode high in the water.
Built for more than that, Jenna thought. The silence was so oppressive, she kept the thought to herself. But she wondered, all the time that she and Catrona pulled on the water-slicked rope, whether the twenty-one horses of the king’s troop could cross on such a boat. Twenty men, and the Bear. Or the Cat. Or Lord Kalas himself.
The little ark plowed across the river quickly, grounding itself with a grinding sound on the shore. The horses got off with more promptness and less urging than they had gotten on. This time both Petra and Jenna remounted with ease.
Jenna urged Duty into the lead, and the horse began an easy gallop along the well-worn road. Behind, Catrona’s and Petra’s bays took up the white mare’s challenge. Jenna could hear their quickening hoofbeats and smiled wryly. For a moment nothing existed but the wind in her hair, the sound of the galloping horses, and the hot spring sun directly overhead.
If I could capture this moment, she thought. If I could hold this time forever, we could all be safe.
And then she saw what she had feared: a thin spiral of smoke scripting a warning against the sky.
“The Hame!” she cried out, the first words any of them had spoken in an hour.
The other two saw the smoke at the same time and read it with the same fear. They bent over their horses’ necks, and the mares, with no further urging, raced toward the unknown fires.
* * *
As they rounded a final bend in the road, the road suddenly mounted upward. The horses labored under them, breathing heavily. Jenna could feel her own heart beating in rhythm with Duty’s heaving breaths. Then they crested the rise, and saw the Hame before them, its great wooden gates shattered and the stone walls broken.
Petra reined up at the sight and gave a little cry, flinging her hand to her mouth. But Jenna, seeing movement beyond the walls, stood in the stirrups hoping to distinguish it. Perhaps it was fighting, perhaps they were not too late. Pulling her sword from its sheath and raising it overhead, she called to Petra, “Stay here. You have no weapon.”
Catrona was already racing forward. Without giving further thought to the consequences, Jenna turned Duty toward the broken stones and, with a great kick, impelled the horse to leap the fallen wall.
There were three men and a woman bending over. They scattered before Duty’s charge. One man, tall and ungainly, like a long-limbed water bird, turned and stared. Jenna screamed sounds at him, not words, and was about to strike when the woman ran between them and raised her hands.
“Merci,” the woman cried, desperation lending force to her thin voice. “In Alta’s name, ich crie merci.”
The words penetrated Jenna’s fury and slowly she lowered her sword, her sword arm shaking so hard, she had to reach over with the other hand to steady it. She noticed what she should have noticed before. The tall stork-man was not armed. Neither was the woman. “Hold, Catrona,” Jenna called out.
Catrona’s voice came back strongly, “I hold.”
“Please,” the woman said, “you must help, if you be Alta’s own.”
“We are ” said Jenna. “But who are you? And what has happened here?” She looked around as she spoke, not directly at the woman. Expecting to see bodies, she saw none. Yet the gates and walls were thrown down, shattered as if by a great blast. There were weapons scattered throughout the courtyard: several bows, dozens of swords, a number of knives, three rakes, even pieces of wood that might have been makeshift cudgels.
The woman clasped and unclasped her hands. “We be from Calla-town. To south. If you rode that way.”
“We did,” Catrona said. “And none there to greet us. Nor at the ford.”
“My husband Harmon, here, be ferryman at’t ford. He and 1 and all our neighbors been here two day, burning dead.”
The tall man, her husband, put his hands on her shoulders and spoke to Jenna from behind his wife. “Grete speaks true, girl. I went out to ferry when a troop of king’s horse came by. They tied me up “and Grete, bless her, be down in root cellar getting it spring cleansed. She could hear their coarse mouths and kept hid, waiting till they be gone.”
Grete interrupted. “It wouldna done any good to come out and fight. I knew that much.”
“She does, too.” Harmon had taken his hands from his wife’s shoulders and swept off his brown cap, kneading it between his long fingers. “She come up later, after they be gone over the water, and cut ropes. Look, the mark be still on my wrists.” He held one hand up but if there was a mark there, Jenna could not see it.
“A hundred or more they be,” said a second man, coming over. “That’s what Harmon said. A hundred or more.”
“This be Jerem the miller and his boy,” Grete said, gesturing at the two. “They was let be for they give the troop grain for horses.”
“But the rest of the town, they be tied up or kilt,” said Jerem. “Exceptin’ the girls. Them they took. My boy sneaked out to see that night”
“Mai,” said Jerem’s boy. He said it quietly but his dark eyes were defiant under his thatch of yellow hair.
“Mai be his sweetheart,” explained Grete, “and she be gone with the rest. And they be promised to one another.”
“Why are you here?” It was Petra, who had dismounted upon hearing the voices. She led her horse through the maze of fallen stone. “You had your own sorrows, then. Did you come here for help?”
“For help?” Grete repeated, shaking her head.
“Bless you, girl,” Jerem said, “we came to help. They be our mothers and our sisters and our nieces and our aunts. They came among us to give us sons.”
Harmon added, “Jerem, he ground their grain and they paid him well, in crops and in strong arms. And when I be took last year with the bloody flux, didn’t a pair of ‘em work all day pulling ferry for me. And four of ’em at night. And another doctored me, and two nursed me in the even.”
“And takin’ no payment for it. None. Not ever. It be their way, you know.” Grete’s thin voice rose and fell oddly.
“So we come quick as we could. When we knew what went on in town.” Harmon’s hands still pummeled his hat.
“But we be late,” Jerem said. “We be hours too late. And they be all dead or gone.”
“But where…” Jenna began, her hands still trembling on sword and reins.
Grete nodded toward the central building of the Hame. “We been cartin’ ’em to Hall. My sons in there be helpin‘, though it be strange for men to work there. That be never allowed. Us women, yes, we came sometimes. To help bring in harvest, or our girls for training some. But the boys wanted to do for the sisters, settin’ ’em side by side. The old lady, that Mother A, she be not quite gone when we got here, the blood all bubbling out of her like kettle to boil. She told us what to do. ‘Side by side,’ she said.”
Jenna nodded slowly. That explained why the women’s bodies were not scattered through the yard. “And…and the men?” she asked at last. “Surely there were some wounded, some dead.”
Catrona added, “Surely they took some of them with them in such a fight.”
“They drug their own wounded away. Or killed ‘em on spot,” said Harmon. “The men be all dead, some thirty of ‘em. We burned them there.” He pointed outside the broken wall, away from the road. “Foreign-looking, they be. Dark skin. Staring eyes.”
“Young,” Grete said. “Too young for such deaths. Too young for such killings.”
“But dead all the same,” said her husband, putting the hat back on his head. “And don’t they say: The swordsman dies by’t sword, the hangman by’t rope, and the king by’t crown.” He turned, looking over the ridge of his shoulder, and spoke to Jenna. “We be obliged for your help.”
Jenna nodded, but it was Petra who spoke, her voice shaky. “We will help.”
“We must be gone soon,” Catrona said in an undertone to Jenna. “The others must be warned.”
Jenna nodded at that, too, thinking to herself that her head must be on a string, so easily did it bob up and down. Then she whispered back, “But one hour surely will not matter. Let us find Selinda and Alna and bid them farewell.”
“An hour can spare a life,” Catrona said. “It is something we learned many times in the army.” But she gave in all the same. “For Alna and Selinda. An hour. That is all.”
* * *
As Grete had promised, the sisters of Calla’s For(J lay side by side in the darkening Hall, Jenna wandered up and down the many lines, kneeling occasionally to tidy a lock of hair or to close staring eyes. There were so many women, she could not count them all, but she refused to cry.
Petra, standing in the doorway, wept for them both.
“This be the last of ‘em,” Jerem said, pointing to an elderly woman in a long dress and apron, lying by the far door.
“Be they right?” Grete asked Catrona. “Be they in’t form?”
“We will see them all right,” Catrona said. “But best you leave us for now so that we may give them the proper rites.”
Grete nodded, and turned to speak to the rest of the townsfolk who had gathered by the entryway, silently waiting. Her hands shooed them out like chickens toward the courtyard. She herself was the last one through the door, calling out in a whisper, “We will wait.”
Jenna stared across the Hall, In the gray light the bodies of the women almost looked like carved stone. Though they had been cleansed of the blood on their hands and faces by the hard-working townsfolk, their shirts and aprons and skirts and trousers were stained with it. But the blood was black, not red, in the graying room. The bodies lay on rushes scented with verbena and dried roses, but the sharp, unmistakable smell of death overpowered the flowery bouquet.
“Shall I light the torches now?” Petra asked, her voice so quiet, Jenna had to strain to hear it. “So that their dark sisters might accompany them?” Without waiting for an answer, she went by the back hallway into the kitchen, came out with a lit candle, and proceeded to light the candles and torches that were set in the walls.
Slowly, in between the bodies, the corpses of the dark sisters took form and soon the room was crowded with them. It was as if a great carpet of death lay wall to wall.
Strangers, thought Jenna, and yet not strangers to me at all. My sisters.
“We must fire the Hame now,” said Catrona. “And then go.”
“But Alna and Selinda are not here,” Jenna said. “Nor any of the younger girls. They may be hidden away like the children of Nill’s Hame. We do not dare set the flames until we find them.”
“They were taken,” Catrona said bluntly, “you heard what Grete and her husband said. Taken. Like the girls of Callatown. Like the boy’s sweetheart.”
“Mai.” Petra said suddenly, still lighting the torches.
“No!” Jenna shook her head violently, her voice echoing loudly. “No! We cannot be sure. Why would they want the girls? Why would they need them? We have to look.”
Catrona put her hand out toward Jenna just as Petra put the candle to a sconce near them in the Hall. Katri appeared by Catrona’s side and put her hand out as well.
“They always want women,” said Katri. “Such men do.”
“They have not enough of their own.” It was Skada’s voice right by Jenna’s ear. “That is what Geo Hosfetter said.”
Jenna did not turn to welcome her. Instead she insisted, “We must search the Hame. We could never forgive ourselves if we did not.”
* * *
It took an hour of searching to prove to Jenna that the girls were not to be found. They even overturned the mirror in the priestess’ room, ripped down tapestries, and knocked endlessly upon solid walls in the hope of finding a secret passage. But there was none.
In the end even Jenna had to agree that the girls were gone. This time she did not ask why.
“And what of the Book?” Petra asked, her hand atop the great leather volume in the priestess’ room. “We cannot leave it here for anyone to read.”
“We do not have time to bury it,” said Jenna, “so it will have to be burned with the rest.”
Petra cradled the Book in her arms, carrying it back down to the Hall where she placed it between the priestess and her dark sister. She set their stiffened hands on top of the volume, palms up so that the blue Alta sign showed, tying their wrists together with her hair ribbands. The in a voice eerily familiar, she began to recite:
“In the name of Alta’s cave,
The dark and lonely grave,
Where we dwell twixt light and light…”
“I will not cry,” Jenna promised herself. “Not for death. Not ever for death.” She shook her head violently to keep away the tears. Skada did the same.
They did not cry.
There were twelve sisters who dwelt in Callatown, by the ford, each one more beautiful than the last. But the loveliest of them all was the youngest, Fair Jennet.
Jennet was tall, with hair the color of the Calla ’s foam, and eyes the blue of a spring sky.
One day the king’s own sons rode into the town, twelve handsome youths they were. But the handsomest was the youngest, Brave Colm. Colm was tall, with hair the color of dawn, and eyes as brown as bark.
Twelve and twelve. They should have been fair matched. But a king’s son is like the cuckoo: he takes his pleasure where he will, then leaves to love again.
When the king’s twelve sons had left, eleven sisters flung themselves into the Calla, above the ford. But the last, Fair Jennet, stayed to bury them, then she rode to the king’s hall. She sang her sorrow at his table, before climbing the stairs to the highest tower. There she cast herself into the wind. As she fell, her cry was the cry of the woodcock rising to its mate.
Colm heard her and raced outside. He held her poor, broken body cradled in his arms, singing back to her the song she had caroled at his father’s feast
“Eleven sisters side by side,
Each one a dishonored bride,
Married to the ebbing tide,
And I wed to the wind.”
At the song’s end, Fair Jennet opened her eyes and called Colm’s name. He kissed her brow before she died.
“I am the wind,” whispered Colm, drawing his sword from his sheath and plunging it into his breast. Then he lay himself down by Jennet’s side and died.
They say that every year, at the spring’s rind, the folks of Callatown build a great bonfire. Its light keeps away the spirits of the eleven who rise like mist above the Calla waves, trying to sing every man down to his death. And they say that Colm and Jennet were buried in a single grave whose mound rises higher than the ruins of the king’s tower. On that mound—and nowhere else in the Dales—grows the flower known as Colm’s Sorrow. It is a flower as light as her hair, with an eye as dark as his, and it rains its petals down like tears throughout all of the long spring days.
The fires burned quickly and the long, thin column of smoke wrote the sisters’ epitaph against the spring sky. Catrona and Jenna stood dryeyed, watching the curling smoke. But Petra buried her face in her hands, sobbing in soft little spurts. The townsfolk wept noisily. Only Jerem’s boy was still, staring off to the west, where the sky was clear.
At last Jenna turned away, walking toward Duty who had waited so patiently by the broken wall. She patted the horse’s nose with great concentration, as if the soft nostrils were the only thing that mattered in the world. She inhaled the heavy horse smell.
Catrona came over and put a hand on her shoulder. “We must go now, Jenna. And quickly.”
Jenna did not look up from the horse.
“Do you go to fight?” It was Jerem’s boy, who had come up behind them. Small, wiry, he had a look of passionate intensity.
Catrona turned. “We go to warn the other Hames,” she said sharply.
“And fight if we must.” Jenna spoke softly,-as much to the horse as the boy.
“Let me go with you,” the boy begged. “I must go. For Mai’s sake. For my own.”
“Your father will need you, boy,” Catrona said.
“He be having less to do now that so many be gone,” he answered. ‘And if you do not let me go with you, I go anyway. I be your shadow. You be looking behind at every turning and at every straightaway, and I be there following.”
Jenna, her hand still on Duty’s nose, stared at him. The boy’s dark green eyes bore into her own. “He will, too,” she said softly to Catrona. “I have seen that look before.”
“In her mirror,” Petra said joining them.
“And in Pynt’s eyes,” Jenna added.
Catrona said nothing more but strode to her horse and mounted it with swift ease. Then she jerked on the reins and the startled mare turned toward the fallen Hame gate.
Petra’s horse stood still while she climbed up, its withers trembling slightly, like ripples on a pond.
Jenna ran her hand along Duty’s head and down her neck with slow deliberation. Then suddenly she grabbed hold of the saddle’s horn and pulled herself up in a single, swift motion.
“Hummmph!” was Catrona’s only comment, for she had turned in her saddle to watch the girls mount, but a smile played around her mouth before resolving itself in a frown.
They sat, motionless, on their horses for a long moment. Then Jenna leaned down and held out her hand to the boy. He grinned up at her and took it. Pulling hard, Jenna lifted him onto the saddle behind her. He settled easily as if well used to riding double.
“Jareth, boy, where be you going?” Jerem ran over, grabbing onto the boy’s right knee.
“He rides with us,” Jenna said.
“He cannot. He must not. He be but a boy.”
“A boy!” Catrona laughed. “He was promised in marriage. If he is man enough to wed, he is man enough to fight. How old do you think these girls are?” Her voice carried only to Jerem’s ears. It was Petra, standing up in her stirrups, who addressed the rest of the villagers.
“We ride with the Anna, the White One, She who was thrice mothered and thrice orphaned.”
The Calla’s Ford folk gathered around to listen. Grete and her husband stood in the front, Jerem still by his son’s knee. They were silent, staring at Jenna.
“We follow Her,” Petra continued, pointing dramatically. “For She has already made both hound and ox bow down. Who would deny Her?” She paused.
Feeling that it was her turn to speak, Jenna drew her sword from its sheath and raised it above her head, wondering if she looked foolish, hoping she appeared noble. “I am the ending and I am the beginning,” she cried out. “Who rides with me?”
From behind her Jareth called, “I ride with you, Anna.”
“And I!” It was a dull-haired, long-legged boy.
“And 1!” Standing by him, one who might have been his twin.
“And I!” The last was Harmon who, caught up in the moment, had snatched off his hat and thrown it into the air causing Petra’s horse to back away nervously. The commotion gave Grete time to put her hand forcefully on her husband’s shoulder, and he sank back, hatless, against her.
In the end, three boys volunteered. Jareth was given his father’s blessing and Grete and Harmon’s two sons took a loan of their father’s spavined gelding. Riding double, they tracked behind the mares down the darkening road toward the west.
Then Great Alta said, “You shall ride to the North and you shall ride to the South; you shall ride to the East and you shall ride to the West. And there great armies will rise up beside you. You and your blanket companions shall match sword with sword and might with might that the blood shed between you shall wash away the stain left by the careless men.”
Copyright © 1989 by Jane Yolen