Balanced on the sill, she watched the distant jagged crest of rock where the road climbed up out of the forest. Finally the riders ap¬peared. Banners at first, ghostly white and limp in the dank mountain air. Horses next, also white, cloud horses etched pale against the distant gray of the upper peaks, puffing vapor that rose like departing spirits past the night-black firs.
Erde shivered. She dreaded this priest’s coming, this stranger with his entourage and his dire prophesies, even though it meant ceremonies and feasting and the chance for news from outside her father’s isolated mountain domain. The news would be bad, of course. It was always bad these days. But fresh faces would be a welcome relief. At the ripe old age of nearly-fourteen, Erde already believed it was true that a young person could die of boredom.
A cry caught her ear, thrown up from the cobbled yard below. The apple-cheeked crone who watched the chickens with her one good eye and pressed card readings on anyone who’d listen, stared up from her perch on the stone well-head. The gray light turned her rheumy gaze to silver. Erde hated the chicken crone. The old woman always seemed to be expecting something of her and would never say what.
Erde looked away and pulled the casement tight.
Forehead tight to the rippled glass, Erde let the cold seep into her furrowed brow, and contemplated the novelty of an unfamiliar face – how gratefully you noticed the peculiar arch of an eyebrow, the odd shape of a lip, how the color of an eye surprised you because maybe no one you’d known yet had eyes exactly that color. She had seen her own eyes in a shard of polished steel that her grandmother kept in a robing trunk. They were very dark, almost black. Her mother’s, she was always told, though Erde could not remember. She cracked open the window for another stare across the battlements.
Far off along the stony path, the cloud horses resolved into living horses, material banners and corporeal men in white robes, a greater number of them than had been expected. Erde could see no pack animals. This priest was very sure of his welcome, to arrive without provisions in such a time of hardship.
Erde started. “Pardon?”
“Come down from that drafty old window!” Her chamber-woman poured water from a kettle into a stoneware bowl. The steam rose into the chill room like the mist come in off the mountain. “You’ll loose your balance and fall!”
“No, I won’t.” Erde searched the distant blur of bodies, hoping to make out a face, any face, in that line of faceless riders.
The kettle clanged to the floor. “Then you’ll catch your death, you with only a shift on! I met three ravens in the stable yard this morning and I’ve been fearing the worst ever since! Such tales you hear! My grand-auntie Hildy vows she’s never known a time so full of ill omen!”
Erde had seen those ravens, all puffed up in the cold and looking grim. She had wondered about them. “Oh, Fricca! I’m in my shift because I’m supposed to be getting dressed!”
“Well, indeed you are, miss, so come down this minute and wash yourself clean!”
“Why should I? Nobody else will. It’s too cold to be clean!”
“It’s not for you to be caring what everyone else might do.”
Her chamber-woman was what Erde heard referred to as “comely”: golden-haired, fair-skinned and plump, all the things that Erde wasn’t. Sometimes she suspected that “comely” really meant kind and silly, for Fricca was both. Like now – venturing no further than the limit of heat from the fireplace, the chamber-woman pressed her palms to her cheeks until her mouth was a soft red rose of anxiety.
“Just think of it, my lady! The Baron your father’s first Occasion as Tor Alte’s lord! Oooh, he’ll be so displeased if you’re not ready and at his side when the holy Brother arrives!”
“Sooo displeased…” Erde mocked. “My father’s displeased whenever he sees me.”
“Not so! Your father loves you. Surely, he’s very busy just now, becoming Baron, but you’re all he has in the world and it wouldn’t hurt you to humor him a bit.” “Why do you pretend it matters what I do?” Erde pivoted on the high stone sill and jumped down, her bare feet slapping against the planking. She knew a proper lady would step first to the window seat, toes pointed, then float daintily to the floor. But even if she could manage such a performance, Erde would never allow Fricca the satis¬faction of witnessing it. “As if my father’s humor was ever as mild as displeasure.”
Fricca made clucking noises as she sponged Erde’s face and arms. “Oh, yes indeed, and aren’t you just your father’s own child!”
“No!” The thought horrified her. “I am my mother’s!”
“That’s as may be, God rest her soul, sweet sweet lady.”
Erde’s chin lifted. “And my grandmother’s grand-daughter.”
“And rest hers also.” Fricca touched the corner of her apron to her eye. “So recently departed.”
“It feels like forever!” Erde moaned.
But it had only been three days. Three impossibly long days. Erde fought another turn of the nausea that had plagued her all morning. How sad and empty those three days had been, without her best friend, her boon companion. Perhaps she so dreaded the priest because he came to lay her dear grandmama in the holy ground, thereby putting to rest her own mad hope that the old woman might yet rise off the cold stone bier in the chapel where only a single tallow candle kept her company. If she could have faced her father, she would have com¬plained. How dare he claim he couldn’t afford the beeswax to light his own mother’s road to eternity?
“Now don’t you be going all stiff on me! It’s only water!” Fricca tossed the wash-felt into the basin with dispatch. Her solemnity, like a fair-weather cloud, quickly passed. There! It’s time to make ourselves beautiful!”
Erde hunched her shoulders. Why did the whole world not mourn this death as she did? “I’m not beautiful.”
“Nonsense. Look at the magnificent long hair on you!” Fricca caught up the heavy shining darkness that flowed down Erde’s back and let it slide through her hands like water. “Who about here has glory hair like this?”
Erde shook her head irritably. People always talked about your hair when they couldn’t think of anything nicer to say about you. “I don’t care if I’m beautiful.”
“Of course you do! Every girl wants to be beautiful! You’re just gloomy with the Baroness’ passing, but life goes on, you know. It must.” Fricca bustled to the bed, where a white velvet ceremonial gown lay in state under the canopy, on a length of sun-bleached muslin.
Like Grandmama in the chapel, Erde mused, cold white on white. The gown had been her mother’s, packed away for twelve years. Suddenly her father insisted it was a waste to let it molder in the chest. The seamstress had hardly needed to alter it at all.
“Draw tight the bed curtains,” she intoned grimly. “Let the dead rest in peace!” Fricca waved her hands as if shooing hens. “Such things you say!”
“Grandmama would never make me wear that.”
“Rest apiece, yourself, and come off with that dull rag, now.”
Fricca held up a new silk shift trimmed with delicate gold. She dangled it this way and that, letting it catch the firelight. “Oooh, what a wonder! Fit for a young virgin bride, which, God willing, soon you’ll be! Come, lucky girl, slip it on.”
The slick cool silk was like eelskin in water, like icy hands touching her all over. Erde plucked at it fitfully. “It hardly covers me at all! And it clings so!”
“Doesn’t it though!” Fricca eyed it with sly envy. “And will come off as smartly as it went on.”
Erde reddened. “I’ll wear my old one.”
“Oh, don’t be prudish! If you think a bed’s just for sleeping, it’s time you learned better! Lots of girls your age are married by now.” Fricca tugged the shift down and smoothed it across Erde’s thin back. “Look at the great height of you, and you not even bleeding yet! Sometimes I think you’re keeping it back on purpose!”
Erde wished Fricca did not feel that, due to the sudden demise of her lady’s only female relative, it had fallen to her to supply a proper education of the bed-chamber. But this suggestion was certainly more interesting than most of Fricca’s notions. “Could I do such a thing?”
Fricca’s mouth formed a small plump o of distress. “Of course not! That’s black witches’ business and none of yours! We may be all sorry sinners but I am a good Christian woman and there’ll be no talk of witchery in this house!”
“It’ll be awfully quiet down in the kitchens, then.”
“Oh, aren’t we the big ears! Well, people will talk when there’s news to be shared, but that’s just talk and harmless, too.”
“But you said I…”
“I only meant that when I brought my auntie’s special lady’s tonic, you poured it out!”
Erde’s blush deepened. “I don’t want to get married yet!”
“Tch! With such a temper, who’d have you anyway? Come on, now.” Fricca shook her apron at her. “You must wear your father’s gifts. Just think of the cost!”
Erde hardly could without shame, for despite the “official” word about court, she knew the countryside was in dire circumstances. Her father insisted that the people needed to see their lords well fed and in proper array to prove that all was still well with the world. But all was not well with the world, and Erde knew she could feed an entire village for the price of that silk shift. She imagined bartering all the hated garments in her robing chest for dried meat and potatoes to fill the farmers’ empty larders. But who could be found these days with sur¬plus enough to barter? “I wish he’d give me a pair of leather riding breeches instead!”
“And I suppose you’d wear such a thing, right out where the world can see it?”
“Astride is the only sensible way to sit a horse. Everyone knows that.”
Fricca’s eyes rolled skyward. “Holy angels, don’t hear a word she says!”
Erde hid a vengeful smile. She’d hit upon something truly shocking at last. She liked Fricca well enough and the woman did show a talent almost equal to her grandmother’s for deflecting the Baron’s sudden bouts of wrath. But she couldn’t help tweaking Fricca for her cotton-wool thinking. In addition to missing the comfort of the Baroness’ company, Erde missed the reassuring clarity of her mind. She felt cast adrift, and angry that lesser mortals lived on while her grandmother had left her, so terribly alone. She tried actually picturing herself in men’s breeches. Perhaps her father would have loved her better if she’d been born a boy.
A sharp rap on the door sent Fricca scurrying to snatch up the shining gown from the bed as if rescuing a sleeping child. “Oh, dear, that’ll be Rainer – poor lad, how my lord does order him about these days! There, see? He’s come to fetch you and you not half ready!”
But Erde knew Rainer’s knock and she knew her father’s. She could only wish it was Rainer. “It’s my father.”
“Never it is!” Fricca frantically readied laces and sleeves. “My lady will be out in a minute!”
The heavy door swung on silent hinges and thudded against the stone. “And where is the Beauteous Flower of Castle von Alte?”
Fricca spread the gown and her substantial self screen-like in front of Erde. “Please, my lord! My lady has not finished dressing!”
“What! Not yet? His horses are already at the Dragon Gate! Shall we let a mere priest catch us napping?”
Erde watched her father carefully as he strode past her to the window. Unable to suffer both her own grief and his constant dissatis¬faction, she had mostly avoided him since the Baroness’ death. But she knew well enough that he did not think of this priest, whom rumor preceded like distant thunder, as a mere anything. Yet here he was doing his hearty act, so perhaps he was both sober and in a reasonable mood.
Seeing her father, Erde was always astonished. How could she be related to this giant? He was tall and deeply barrel-chested, with a waist that tucked in beneath his ribs as neat as a woman’s, barely widening at the hips. Almost top-heavy, she decided. He had a big head and affected a clean-shaven style peculiar for a man well into middle age but, since his accession, spreading rapidly to the rest of the court. The castle barbers were uncharacteristically busy. The Baron’s strong, naked chin and his penchant for dark shades of rich velvet offered – when properly brushed and aired – a flattering contrast to his thick, prematurely silver hair. Today he was freshly barbered and wore burgundy finely stitched with that same silver. It occurred to Erde that her father was a little vain.
He flung the casement wide. “Wind’s come up again.”
In the tall stone hearth, flames dipped and roared as the high-vaulted room inhaled the draft. The tapestries billowed on the damp-streaked walls. The Baron sucked air noisily and licked his lips as if tasting something unpleasant. “Might get snow tonight. Perhaps this priest’s prophesies are true.”
Snow, Erde marveled. People of the upland domains were by long tradition held to be particularly skeptical, but snow in August? In early August. No wonder the countryside was so rife with black rumor.
“Please, my lord! My lady will catch her death!”
“Please, my lord,” the Baron mimicked, and Erde felt a pang of guilt, for it was her father’s own habit of mockery she’d inherited. When he turned from the window, she noted how bright and hard his blue eyes were, above his practiced amiable smile. Like a frozen bit of sky. Sometimes the brightness meant he’d been drinking but not enough to really show. Right now, she wasn’t sure what it meant. He folded his big velvet-shrouded arms. “Now let’s see.”
Fricca plumped the white gown awkwardly, still holding it to Erde’s chest.
“Not the dress, woman, the girl!”
“Oh!” Fricca bobbed her head and Erde saw her grin foolishly as she gathered the gown to her own chest and stepped aside.
“Well,” murmured the Baron. “How does our little flower grow? Are our dainty rosebuds swelling yet?”
Fricca giggled. “Oh, just a little, my lord!”
Erde studied the floor, her big toe tracing the cracks between the worn planks. Her father often looked her over as if she was one of his prize war horses, but since her grandmother’s death, something new lurked in his appraising stare. She saw her narrow shape reflected in his eyes: dark hair long to her waist, long face, long slim body more proper for a boy than a young girl. The firelight flickered behind her, as if she was aflame. I look like a witch at the stake, Erde thought. She wondered what her father saw.
“Well,” he said again, and walked around to observe her sidelong. Then he did something he had never done before. He moved close and rested a finger on her shoulder, then drew it lingeringly down her naked arm. Erde caught her breath. She must not flinch from his touch, and anger him. He had never struck her, though he had often threatened, but before, there had always been the Baroness to answer to. “Skin like butter and olives,” he mused. “Like your mother’s.”
Abruptly he dropped his hand and his glance, and turned away with a sharp gesture to Fricca. “Too thin, though, don’t you think? What are you feeding her?”
Fricca held up the gown for Erde to step into. “She’s a fine eater, my lord, I promise you.” She dared to smile at him over one shoulder as she fastened laces. “Surely it’s our long walks out on the mountain in this devil’s weather that’s wearing her out.”
Wearing you out, more likely, thought Erde irritably.
The Baron let the ends of his mouth curl a little. “How is it these walks don’t leave you scrawny, woman?”
Fricca rounded her shoulders until her cleavage deepened, and giggled. Erde suddenly felt invisible and ignored. “Ha! You’d never catch Fricca out there in the forest getting her shoes dirty!”
Her chamber woman shot her a warning glance, but too late.
The Baron frowned. “Forest? You walk in the forest?”
Fricca shrugged helplessly. “My lord! As if I could keep up with her, racing all through the trees like a boy-child!”
“Alone in the forest? This is no boy-child! Where does she go?” He spun on Erde. “Where do you go?”
She shrugged. “Nowhere special. I just…”
His eyes went dark as winter oceans. “Who do you meet out there? Some boy from the villages?”
“Boy?” The notion astonished her. “Of course not! Everyone knows about my walks!” Her careless spite had stumbled her into trouble. She could never tell her father the real reason she ventured alone into the forest, where the great trees swayed far above her head, and the amber-coated deer ate from her hand. So many of the herd were falling to the Baron’s Hunt as it ranged ever deeper into the forest in search of meat for her father’s table. Erde studied the huntsmen’s routes and led the deer away from them. Of course Fricca could not come. Fricca would betray her, and the deer. “I need the exercise. The guardsmen watch me from the gate tower!”
Miraculously, this seemed to soothe him. He blinked and waved a gruff dismissive hand. “Brigands and bears out there! It’s too dangerous! I can’t allow it.”
Fricca knelt with her back to him to arrange the lustrous folds of the gown, and the Baron took in the round shape of her and her trim waist. A small distracted smile touched his lips. “Well, that’s it, then. No more hiking about.”
“Would you have the whole court whispering that my daughter is not a lady? Walk the battlements, if you must exercise. Stroll the yards.”
“But that’s so boring!”
The Baron set his jaw. “Your grandmother indulged you.” His velvet robe sighed about him as he made for the door. “Fricca! I’ll see you outside for a moment!”
The look he threw from the open doorway left Erde fearful and confused. Why should a few mountain walks make him glare so fiercely? It can only be, she decided, that my father hates me.