The change in Kate was obvious to all, but no one understood it. Prim and Celia were sure Kate's restless unhappiness was due to disappointment. Prim assured her that Hugh would give in to their arguments and take her into town, but Kate no longer wanted to go. In the aftermath of her guardian's horrible disclosure, society parties had gone quite out of her head.
Kate couldn't bear for her little sister to find out that they weren't really family, so she said nothing about what she had learned, and she tried to keep up a cheerful appearance. But keeping a secret from loved ones is a heavy burden, and now she was keeping two secrets. Her nightmares were wearing her out, and her worried sister's constant questions were upsetting her. Prim noticed the pale cheeks and the dark shadows under her niece's eyes. Lips tight, she called the doctor, but neither he nor Prim could find anything wrong. Between them, they dosed Kate with a variety of strong and well-meaning remedies that did no good at all.
The weather changed with the approaching end of summer, and clouds gathered over the Hill. One breathless afternoon nothing could bring relief to spirit or body. A gray haze hung in the air, too diffuse to be called clouds, but too thick to be called anything else. The sun shone through it as a brilliant white spot, and not a whisper of wind stirred. As evening came, no thunder rumbled in the hills, and no breeze sprang up to fan their clammy cheeks. The sun was leaving without a blaze of color. The thick haze just seemed to swallow it.
"Please, Aunt Prim, let us walk up in the hills and see if we can't find some cool wind somewhere," Kate begged. "I promise we'll come back before it gets dark." Her aunt knew better than to let her go. Storms were sure to follow a day like this, even if they were taking their time building. But at last she gave consent, with all the conditions that approaching storms and nightfall demanded. They were to stay out of the woods, watch the sky, and come back at the first sign of bad weather.
The girls headed down through the orchard, intent on the rocky meadows beyond. Kate was sure that if they climbed to the top of one of those grassy hills, they were bound to find a breeze, but at the top of their meadow, they found no breath stirring. The twilight was blending with the strange, close sky to form a dark brown haze, and the grass at their feet shone with a blond shimmer, as if the few rays of light left could not rise above the surface of the ground. Landmarks even a few yards away were melting into the brown gloom. Purple lightning bloomed across the dark sky before them.
"We'd better go back," sighed Kate.
They waded through the grass back down the hillside. Ahead of them in the thick dusk stood the stone wall of the meadow, but no gate appeared as they followed the meadow's edge.
"Wait, Em, we must have gotten turned around. The gate's over there."
As their fence formed a corner with another stone fence, the gate appeared a few feet from them, white boards gleaming in the dim light. They hurried over to it as another shining purple curtain shook across the sky, and swinging the gate shut, they sped up the little road before them.
A couple of minutes later, they stopped short in bewilderment. Another stone fence blocked their path. But how was this possible? They should be at the orchard by now. The two girls climbed a slight rise and looked around in all directions, trying to make out the shapes of trees that marked the orchard. Some faint light still remained. They could see each other's faces, pale in the deep dusk, but now they couldn't distinguish the black horizon from the black cloudbanks. The lightning, undulating over the swollen masses of the clouds, was distant and too weak to see by. It gleamed silently first in front and then behind them.
"This makes no sense," Kate said firmly, thinking over the way they had come. "All we had to do was walk back down the hill, through the gate, and up the orchard path. We've missed the gate somehow. There must be two in that meadow, and we hit on the other one. We'll follow the road back and look for the other gate out of that field, the one that takes us to the orchard."
With that plan in mind, they started off confidently, but now their light was gone. They found the little road again more by feel than by sight, but it didn't lead them to a gate. It turned and skirted along another stone wall, went through a tumbled-down gap, and lost itself altogether in a narrow draw.
Again and again, Kate tried desperately to find the right path in the darkness, making them s20retrace their steps, but each time they did, they lost their old landmarks. Everything seemed to shift in the darkness around them. They had no idea which direction they faced or where home was. They could only tell that they were moving farther and farther from the shelter of the woodlands. The fields were flattening out, and stone fences were becoming rare.
There followed a time which was the worst in their lives. Method was gone, and landmarks were forgotten. They blundered along hand in hand through the dense blackness, following any path they crossed. Lightning seemed to be all around them now, and every white flash lit up a dreary landscape that held no familiar sight. One black field followed another. They might be one mile from home, or they might be ten. They certainly felt that they had walked a hundred.
As they stumbled along, footsore and exhausted, Emily let out an excited squeak and tugged Kate around. Far across the fields, a light was shining. It wavered, winked out, and then showed up again. The girls turned and scrambled toward it.
The light was a bonfire, blazing up in the darkness with a reddish glow, and figures moved back and forth before it. The fire lit up no house or barn. It appeared to be built in the middle of an empty field. Kate began to watch the figures by the fire uneasily. A hunting party? Gypsies? Vagabonds? Two men stood by the fire in long cloaks, their hoods pulled down over their faces. That spoke perhaps of hunting and of the stormy weather. But two or three short people moved about as well. Children? They had to be, but there was something odd about their shapes. As the girls came nearer, Kate noticed four horses standing patiently beyond the fire. They appeared to be saddled. Hunting, then, but who would be out on such a night? She began to slow down, not so anxious to walk out of the darkness toward this strange group, but Emily, clutching Kate's hand, began to speed up. Warmth, light, people-these held no fears for her. She broke into a trot, pulling her sister behind her.
The party turned, sensing their approach. One of the short figures broke away from the fire-lit circle and bustled toward them.
"Oh, look! Two pretty girls right out of the storm! Do let old Agatha tell your fortune, dears."
"Gypsies!" whispered Emily excitedly as Agatha hurried up. Kate stared down, astonished, at the shortest woman she had ever seen. Agatha came up only a little past Kate's waist, but her small, stocky body did not appear to be hunched or twisted. The old face was seamed into countless wrinkles, and the black eyes snapped and sparkled in the firelight. "Here," she said, capturing Kate's hand in her own surprisingly large one, "come by the fire so I can see your pretty face."
As Kate followed Agatha over to the bonfire, she glanced around nervously at the other members of the party. The two men stood nearby. One was only a little taller than she, thick and barrel-chested. The other man, of average height, towered over him. Perhaps they had been conversing before, but now they were silent, watching Agatha and the two girls. They were draped in the black cloaks and hoods she had noticed earlier, and she could see nothing at all of their faces. This was prudent, given the coming storm, but it irked Kate to be seen and not to see. She wished she had a cloak of her own.
Agatha, meanwhile, was peering intently at Kate's palm, turning it this way and that in the firelight. "Oh," she breathed. "Not every young lady has a hand like this." Kate heard chuckles from the men. "But, dear," she said, ignoring them, "I see danger in this hand. Danger from someone very close to you." Now the men roared with laughter. "Be quiet, the two of you!" She whirled on them, still holding Kate fast. "I'm very serious!"
"What about me?" demanded Emily eagerly, holding out her hand to the old woman. "Do you see danger in my hand?" Old Agatha took her small palm and turned it toward the fire.
"And such a lively thing you are, my dear!" she said to Emily. "Still a long way from marriage, aren't you? Well, that can't be helped, and one does grow, you know." Emily giggled over this odd speech, but Kate frowned. Hugging her arms about her, she stepped back from the firelight and eyed the two men warily. Now they had turned away and were talking again in quiet tones. She couldn't seem to catch what they were saying. The taller one threw his head back and laughed at something the short one said. She noticed as he laughed that he carried one shoulder higher than the other.
"Your palm speaks of tears early but laughter late," Agatha summed up grandly. "That's as good as a palm can say. You've a lovely, open nature, child."
"Oh, Kate, look!" Emily called excitedly. Kate turned to see a huge black tomcat approaching the fire. It rubbed its head against Emily's knee, its velvet coat shining in the light. Kate felt as if she couldn't breathe. Surely the cat was four times-no, six times-larger than the largest cat she'd ever seen!
"Isn't he beautiful?" squealed Emily, kneeling to tickle his chin. She loved animals of all descriptions, and her greatest regret was that the aunts wouldn't let her keep pets. The enormous cat was almost eye to eye with her. "Miaow?" he said plainly, and that is just what it sounded like: a miaow said by a person imitating a cat. Kate shook her head and stared hard at the giant feline as if he were a puzzle she needed to solve. Something needed explaining here. Perhaps she was just dreaming?
"Oh, scat, Seylin!" scolded Agatha, waving her big hands. "Such a nuisance you are, really! Go on!" The men walked away, heading toward the horses. A small boy came out of the shadows to throw wood on the fire. Kate thought she saw a beard on his face as he turned to look at her. Just a trick of the light, perhaps, or nerves. Enough of this! Emily stepped toward the shadows, coaxing, "Seylin..." Kate caught her by the arm and pulled her around, turning to the old woman.
"Thank you so much for the fortunes," she began firmly, "but what-"
"Oh, I know all about it, dears!" Agatha interrupted kindly. "Two pretty girls lost on a wild night, scared and tired, looking for the way home. You let old Agatha take care of that. We'll take you home, don't worry. Can't have you out in a storm like this, no. And the only question is, who will take whom? Let's see, where did they go? What's your name, dear, Kate? And who will take Kate home, eh?"
The taller man was leading his horse, a large gray hunter that any gentleman might be proud to own. Kate noticed that the man limped slightly. That, along with the high shoulder. Old age? His posture was unaffected, and he carried himself with dignity. He couldn't be old; he had laughed like a young man, and when he spoke, his voice was not an old man's voice. It was rich and pleasant, naturally commanding. "Don't worry, Agatha. I'll take your Kate home, of course." Amused and tolerant. Amused at what? The old woman? Their silliness in getting lost?
"Oh, Marak!" breathed Agatha delightedly, turning her twinkling black eyes on him. Kate felt again that sense of unease. Why the delight and excitement over a simple, good-hearted gesture? The man brought his horse up to her wordlessly and turned to check the saddle. She could see nothing but a black cloak. Good cloth, Aunt Prim would say. Expensive cloth, generously cut. Big, gloved hands pulling down the stirrup. Kate looked more closely. The right hand had six fingers.
"W-wait!" she stammered. "You-you don't know where we live. How can you promise to take us home if you don't know where we live?" The man paused for a fraction of a second and then continued his work without looking up. She turned quickly, hoping to see a surprised look on Agatha's face, hoping to find some answer to the riddle she was facing. But Emily blurted out helpfully, "Yes, we live in the Hallow Hill Lodge. Do you know where that is? Are we very far from there?"
"Of course we know where you live, dears," replied Agatha with a chuckle. "Do you think anyone in this country doesn't know of the pretty girls come to live with the two old ladies up in the forest? We've not got much to gossip over around here. Now, let's see. Marak, shouldn't Thaydar take the little one along? Such a receptive nature, such pluck."
"I think so," replied that amused, amiable voice. "It's probably for the best. So, ready?" And he turned to Kate, putting out his hands to boost her up onto his horse. Emily was stroking the horse's neck delightedly. He was far finer than any at the Hall.
"No!" said Kate, stepping back and treading on her sister's foot. "I-I prefer to walk, thank you." A silence swept across the little group.
"Oh, Kate!" Emily gasped.
The rider dropped his hands slowly and seemed to stare down at her from beneath his hood. He was almost a head taller than she was. "Really," he said distinctly, all amusement gone from that commanding voice. His manner was beyond cold. It was glacial.
Kate forced herself to hold up her head and face him as the blood rushed through her cheeks in a tingling wave. She wasn't sure why she had said what she did, but she would not be faced down now by strangers. Something was wrong here; she knew it. She refused to be a fool for them.
"Yes," she replied as calmly and formally as she could. "Please lead my sister and me to the Hallow Hill Lodge, where we live. If you do, we will be very grateful. I hope we are not far from the Lodge because we do not wish to try your patience too long."
The hooded man continued to stare at her for a long moment. Then he gave a short laugh. "Well, well, how intriguing! No," he continued firmly over Agatha's spluttered protests, "we will certainly humor the cautious young woman. Thaydar, I'll not need you. I believe one horse is sufficient to point out the way." He swung up into the saddle. "Now, shall we begin our walk?" 0he added to the two girls. "Or, that is-" he went on, bending toward Emily. "I assume that you prefer to walk, too?"
"I do not!" said Emily decidedly, glaring at her sister. She caught the rider's arm and let herself be swung up before him.
"Em!" shouted Kate, panicked, but it was too late. He settled her little sister comfortably and put the horse into a plodding walk. Kate stood for a second, hands shaking, unsure what she had expected. Then she had to scramble after them.
The darkness pressed in around them as they left the bonfire behind. Lightning flickered and flashed. Marak's good humor seemed to have returned, and he soon had Emily telling him all about life at the Lodge. Kate stumbled along at the horse's flank, trying to keep up. She felt like a complete fool.
"So your name is M. That's a letter, isn't it?" he asked. This notion caught Emily's fancy powerfully, and she couldn't stop giggling.
"My name is Emily Winslow, but my sister calls me Em. Or maybe she calls me M. I wonder what I stand for." Kate tripped over a root and thought Emily sounded like an idiot.
"Isn't it funny how humans name a child one thing in order to call it something else? So many names. It's like a game. M's a new one. Kate-now that's a name everyone knows."
They were walking through a field of weeds. The weeds were up to Kate's waist, and she kept slipping on the long stalks. "Miss Winslow," she muttered through clenched teeth, but Marak heard her. He must have very good ears.
"Oh, hello, Kate, are you all right down there? Are you enjoying your walk? So, Miss Winslow. How convenient. You have one name for friends and another for enemies." Emily giggled again. He certainly was making a hit with her.
"I do not have a name for enemies," Kate answered sharply. "Polite society dictates the use of a person's name." She emphasized polite; she just couldn't help herself. "I am Kate within my family and Miss Winslow to strangers."
"Oh, good, Kate," came the cheerful reply. Really, this was intolerable. "I can keep calling you Kate and still be part of polite society. I'm family, you know. Hugh Roberts of Hallow Hill is a relative of mine. His grandfather and my mother were cousins. Their fathers were brothers."
"Really?" exclaimed Emily excitedly. "I didn't know we had any more relatives." Neither did Kate. She felt her mortification could not go further. Perhaps this man had been on his way to visit his cousin. He must have known all about the two new wards. And now everyone would know how absurdly she had acted. But why had he been so rude? Why the hood, the wordless meeting? Really, it was his fault she had made such a colossal blunder. She was upset to the point of tears.
"I'm afraid if you're Mr. Roberts' relative, you're no relative of mine," she snapped before she realized what she was saying. Oh, no! After keeping quiet all this time!
"What?" demanded Emily, and "Really?" exclaimed her tormentor. He reined in the horse and turned to face her. "What do you mean, you're not a Roberts? I thought you were living with your great-aunts."
"Oh, Em, I'm sorry," faltered Kate, looking up through the darkness at the pale smudge that was all she could distinguish of her sister's face. "It's old news, really; no one minds. Our great-grandmother was adopted into the family, that's all."
There was a pause. Then Marak urged the horse back into a walk.
"I can't say I'm sorry," he said thoughtfully. "New blood is very good for the Hill. But which great-grandmother are you talking about?" Thoroughly cowed, Kate told the story of Elizabeth's adoption, Adele's death, and their own consequent arrival, but she was rather scandalized when Marak laughed at all the wrong places.
"That's not how my mother told that story, Kate," he said carelessly. "I wouldn't believe everything that fool Roberts tells you." Emily snorted delightedly, but Kate was bewildered.
"Do you mean you think he lied about the adoption?" she asked, struggling along by the horse's side.
"Oh, no. That's the only thing I do believe, but what a thing to tell you. Poor Kate!" he teased. "I don't think Roberts likes you at all."
If he calls me Kate one more time, thought Kate, I'll do something horrible. Then she thought about the several horrible things she had already done that evening and subsided into misery again.
"We don't like him, either," confided Emily heatedly. "He's just hateful, with his long words, and his hallow hill, and his hollow hill, and his linguistic persistence of ignorance."
"What?" The rider seemed highly amused. "He's been explaining everything for you, has he? Tell me, what did he say about the Hill?" Emily went into a somewhat confused rendition of their cousin's speech on the place names, and this time Marak laughed at all the right places.
"Well, Letter M," he announced, "almost every bit of that is wrong. Completely and thoroughly wrong. Pigheaded. Would you like to know why it's really called Hollow Lake?"
"Yes!" exclaimed Emily.
"It's called Hollow Lake-because it's hollow." There was a momentary pause.
"Now, what does that mean?" Emily burst out.
"It's just hollow, that's all."
"How is it supposed to be hollow?" demanded Emily. "You're just being silly!"
"No," the man replied pleasantly, "I assure you I never lie. Now, that's a funny thing, lying. If you notice, M, most humans can't do without it. They consider it an essential component of-how shall I call it?-polite society." Kate felt the sting in his words and set her teeth. She wondered when this interminable journey would end.
"Humans lie to each other constantly. They mean to. They think it best. They tell you what a clever child you are when they mean someone should muzzle you, and they tell one another how handsome they look when they think they look absurd. They believe they're doing the world a favor by lying. Why, take your sister as a case in point."
I won't say a word, Kate promised herself stoically, and Emily rushed to defend her sister against her newfound favorite.
"Kate doesn't lie!" she said indignantly.
"Oh, doesn't she?" answered Marak, sounding much amused. "Well, M, I'm sure she doesn't lie often, but such is the frail nature of humans that she simply couldn't help herself. Imagine"-he lowered his voice dramatically- "as she stood by the bonfire tonight, she saw outlandish and otherworldly sights, and when I came toward her to lift her onto this horse here, she knew-she just knew-that if she let me put her onto this horse, she'd be galloped away beyond the world we know into some strange, shadowy underworld." His voice dropped to a whisper. "And not one of the mortals on this earth would ever see her again."
Emily went off into gales of laughter. Kate felt a swift chill run through her. How could this stranger know what she had felt? She hadn't even known it herself. But that was it exactly, down to the last detail.
"And so," continued Emily's storyteller cheerfully, "what on earth could your sister say? Could she say, I think you are about to steal me for what awful ends I know not? No, she is a human. She fell back on the polite lie. And so she said" -and here he took on a haughty tone- "'I prefer to walk.'"
Kate forgot her promise to keep quiet. "You must think that I am a perfect fool!" she exclaimed.
"Oh, no," the rider assured her. "You are a woman of rare perception. Not one woman in a hundred-maybe a thousand-would have realized in time. I find myself wondering," he added thoughtfully, "just how you managed it."
Kate tried to puzzle out this strange speech. Another riddle for her to solve. It sounded very important, but she was too tired to make any sense of it. If the walk continued much longer, she was afraid she would collapse. She felt as if she had never done anything else but stumble through blackness.
"And here we are," concluded Marak. They came up a rise. The orchard trees loomed out at them. Gravel crunched underfoot. And in another minute, there stood the Lodge itself, solid and comforting, with golden light streaming out of all the downstairs windows. The rider swung down from the saddle and lifted Emily to the ground. "Off you go," he told her. "I stay here."
"But won't you come in, Mr. Marak?" begged Emily. "I know the aunts would love to meet you."
"Oh, I know them," he answered carelessly. "I remember when they first came here. A pretty young thing the blond was then, I assure you! But newly widowed. That was a real pity," he added feelingly. "No, I'll come in another time."
"Good-bye, then, and thank you for the ride!" Emily wrung his hand and dashed up the path. He turned to Kate, who stood hesitating, almost too tired to walk further. Now that they were back in the light again, she found his cloak and hood insulting. She could make out nothing about him, and he seemed to know everything about her.
"Kate, you look terrible!" he said sincerely. "You're completely exhausted. Well, you won tonight, and I'm not a good loser. I'm not used to it. But until next time" -and he held out his six-fingered hand.
Kate shook her head and put her hands behind her back. She glared up at him, beside herself with indignation. She said firmly, "I hate to appear rude-"
"Yes, you do, don't you." He laughed. "Oh, I know what's bothering you," he teased before she could turn away in disgust. "The cloak and hood. It's been on your nerves all evening. You've been imagining all sorts of horrors, I'd guess."
This is just another way to goad me, Kate thought grimly, but he was absolutely right.
Marak tugged back his hood and examined her stunned expression. He watched her cheeks grow pale, her lips bloodless. He grinned in delighted amusement.
"You imagined all sorts of horrors. But maybe not this one." And he swung back into the saddle and rode away.
Copyright © 2003 Clare B. Dunkle