Chapter Sixteen: And Then You Walk On
The old farmer was already up when I knocked on his door early the next morning, several hours before daybreak. He answered the door with a scowl that melted into a look of shock as he saw me there without my cloak and hood.
"Ye…" he breathed. " Ye're a…"
"Yes, I'm a Sacrifice," I admitted, a touch breathless from my run here. Sariel was still asleep where we had set up an impromptu camp under the edge of the forest, and I wanted to finish this errand before he woke up. "I'm sorry to disturb you so early, but yesterday you said that there was a horse you thought would suit me?" I had already made Sariel carry me too many times, and a horse seemed like the perfect answer to the times when my madness left me unable to walk.
The farmer's crinkled face split into a grin. "That I do. Come with me, little miss. The beast's out this way." Taking up a lit lantern, he picked his way around a pile of sleeping hounds and over to a long, low barn. I followed him through the wide doors, breathing in the smell of horses, hay, and sweat as I went.
The barn was dimly lit, a few lanterns providing illumination as we stopped in front of one of the stalls. The farmer peered in and clucked. "Up ye get, boy! A pretty lady's here to see ye."
I moved to the side so I could peer over the wall, and my breath froze in my throat. The creature in the stall was no draft horse, meant for heavy farm labor. Neither was he a tiny, light-boned palfrey good only for gentle riding. He was between the two extremes, a long-legged beast with elegant mass and incredible speed, visible even when he was standing still. Despite the dimness of the stable, his pure white coat shone like burning moonlight, making him a blazing spirit-creature in the half-light.
"He's beautiful," I breathed, reaching a hand over the wall and offering it to him. "More beautiful than anything I've ever seen."
The horse looked at me with wise, dark eyes, then dipped his head and gently bumped his nose against my palm. The old farmer smiled and nodded.
"Aye," he said with satisfaction. "Moonlight Dancing, we call 'im. Dancer. Won't have no rider of the ones who've come already, but I think ye 're different. See if 'e comes to ye."
Not needing any more urging, I threw the bolt on the door and swung it open, then stepped back. Dancer looked at me, then at the farmer, and stepped out of the stall with all the light-footed grace of his namesake. After a moment of contemplation, he turned and butted me in the chest with his elegant head, then snorted and stretched out one foreleg, bending in an easy bow.
The man smiled. "Aye. I knew ye were the right one for 'im. Get on, go. E's for ye to have."
"I couldn't," I whispered, though everything in me wanted to take him, as I hadn't wanted anything in a long time.
With a gruff growl, the man pulled a saddle from the rack on the wall. He tossed it onto Dancer's back and tightened the girth, then slipped a bell-trimmed bridle on his head, secured it, and offered me a hand up. "'Course ye can. Dancer here won't have no other, and I've no use for a riderless horse. Up ye get." Not waiting for my response, he caught me around the waist and threw me up onto the horse, barely giving me time to grab a hold of the saddle as he did.
Grabbing onto Dancer's mane to secure my balance, I used my free hand to fish three gold coins from the purse I had brought and offered them to the old farmer. "Please, take these. At least let me pay you for the tack." It was money I had earned gathering and selling herbs for Willow, and while it was precious, so was Dancer.
The man smiled, eyes crinkling, because he knew as well as I did that three gold dragons were enough to buy the tack thrice over. It was simply a way to pay for the horse and still allow both of us to keep our pride. Because he recognized the offer for what it was, he nodded, dipping his head, and accepted the coins. "Aye. As ye wish. Thank ye, little lady."
I shook my head, stroking one hand over Dancer's thickly muscled neck. "Thank you. I seem to have gotten the better part of this bargain."
The farmer swung open the barn door, and I took a moment to get settled before I guided the big horse out. Vaguely, distantly, I could remember the Raven Lady and her own white horse, with me on his back and her on the ground, showing me how to hold the reins and guide him with my knees. It seemed Dancer knew all the same signals, and responded more to my thoughts than to my movements. With a last nod to the old man, since I had no words to say what I was feeling, I steered Dancer down the road and set off for our camp at an easy trot.
Sariel was just stirring as I slid off Dancer's back and tied the reins to a low branch. The Taker looked over at me and raised an eyebrow.
"Dare I ask?" he said dryly
"Do you?" I retorted. "He's a beauty, and he's sweet, and he can carry me if what happened yesterday happens again. It's more convenient than having you carry me, in case something takes place that you need both hands for."
Sariel smiled, shaking his head. "You don't have to say anything, Grey. It was a good idea. What's her name?"
"His," I corrected, stroking Dancer's nose. "The man said he was called Moonlight Dancing. Dancer, for short."
"So you're the one that snow-beast was waiting for," a cheerful voice called from the edge of their camp. Both of us twisted around to see a slender, older man in a brown tunic raise his hand in greeting. When he was close enough to speak without raising his voice, he bowed. "Good morning to you. I'm Teran, the headman of the village. Than you for your assistance last night."
I undid Dancer's saddle and bowed back, more deeply. "It was nothing. Yama needed to be stopped, before the girl could be manipulated to serve his ends."
"Both of their ends," Teran corrected gently. "The Sacrifice had her own ends as well, and cannot be blameless, despite her age."
He was right, as painful as it was, and I dipped my head. "Yes, you're correct. Forgive me."
Sariel quietly slid a hand over my shoulder. His touch was comforting, soothing, and so hot it burned. His eyes found Teran's over my head. "Headman, you are welcome here, of course. But why have you come?"
Teran looked at him, and there was no malice in that gaze. "You are the golden Taker who killed the hounds last night, are you not? My people had seen them, skulking on the forest's edge, and feared them."
"As well they should have," Sariel said politely, but I could hear in his voice that he didn't truly care. "Yama and his dogs were Inner Court, but only because they enjoyed being allowed to inflict cruelties without the edicts of the High Court to temper them."
"I see." Teran lowered his eyes for a moment, and then looked back at me—directly at me, even though I was a Sacrifice. "Claudia told me that you plan to cross Blackthorn Bog. I was born there, and know the best paths. Do you already have a guide, or would you like for me to tell you?"
I nodded, trying to keep the man from seeing just how anxious I was to move, to leave. "Please. Time is precious."
He smiled at me, as though my eagerness wasn't as well hidden as I thought. "There are five paths leading into the Bog, and only one leading out. There people who live there enjoy their privacy, and try to lead travelers astray. Take the path marked with red ribbons, and do not leave it, no matter what you see. It will bring you safely across, and leave you at the edge of Rose-On-the-Eldwater." He cast a glance at Dancer, and his mouth tipped up at the corners. "The dragon-beast should be light enough to walk those paths, too. I'm glad old Marr finally found someone to take him."
"Take him?" I looked behind me, at the glorious creature who stood there. It seemed impossible that some would not.
The headman's smile widened, reading the question in my voice, and he laughed. "Marr didn't tell you? That old man will be the death of me, I swear it." Casting a fond glance in the direction of the old farmer's home, he turned back and nodded. "Yes, Marr used to train the best warhorses for the imperial family. The emperor finally allowed him to retire a few seasons ago, on the condition that he keep breeding horses for the country. Moonlight Dancing is one of the results. Marr trained him well, even better than he did the emperor's mount—but Marr lets the horse choose the rider, and that line's notoriously fickle. They say Dancer's grandsire would have no rider but a High Court Taker-lady, the Burning-Queen's consort, and it seems Dancer will have no one but you." Teran bowed to me. "May your travels with him be peaceful, Lady Sacrifice, and may you find what you are looking for at the end of your road."
With a final nod, the headman faded back into the trees in the same way he had come, and we were alone again.
I turned and stared at Dancer, so like that tall white horse who had taken me away from my first life. Dancer looked back, eyes wise and gentle, and dipped his head as though in acknowledgement of the connection.
"I believe," Sariel murmured in amusement, "that he was referring to the horse the Raven Lady affectionately called 'Snowball.' The poor creature never hand an ounce of dignity with her around."
That startled a laugh out of me. "She was that cruel? I never knew. But…" Gently, I ran one hand over Dancer's side. Here was a connection, a link to the beautiful, mysterious figure in my memories, who flitted in and out of my head like a ghost. It was a simple thing, but to me it meant the world.
"But?" Sariel prompted gently.
I turned back to him, and even with everything that had happened, everything that I had seen, I still felt the same joy I had last night, before Ruby and Yama had shattered the peace. "She met him, Sariel. The Raven Lady met Marr, and took Dancer's grandsire. She was there, and she was real, to more people than just me."
Sariel smiled at me and took my hands, pulling me closer to him. He kissed my forehead. "Cherish."
"What?" I looked at him in confusion.
He brushed my cheek with the backs of his fingers, eyes kind. "The Raven Lady's name. It's Cherish. Not many Takers know that, and even fewer humans. But you bear her mark, and you should know."
"Cherish," I repeated in a whisper, and laughter bubbled up in my throat. It spilled out into the air, bright and loud, and I twirled in the patchy grass under the tree branches. "Cherish! Cherish, Cherish, Cherish! She has a name!" I grabbed Sariel's hands and pulled him with me into a spinning dance. "I remember! That's what Beloved always called her, but I had forgotten. I've forgotten so much."
—Like watching the High Court functions, where the Raven Lady—Cherish—sat at the foot of Beloved's throne, her head resting on Beloved's knee. Her long hair spilled over her back and down to the floor in an ebony waterfall, partially covering me where I leaned against her side with my legs tucked under me.
Beloved absently stroked Cherish's hair as she watched the brightly clad dancers before her. Every so often, the Burning-Queen would glance at me, and a small, brief smile would flicker over her face, gone so quickly that I almost thought I was imagining it. But afterwards, her hand would drift a little farther than it needed to on Cherish's head, and she would stroke my hair, too.
Cherish's fingers were twined in mine, and she wore the lazy smile of a contented cat. We were so happy, so content, and even the courtiers who usually protested—against Cherish's boldness, against my continued existence—simply looked at us, shook their heads, and looked away again. Beloved—
"It will come back to you someday, I'm certain." Sariel's voice broke through the ripples of memory, snapping me back to the present. "You said that the Raven Lady sent you away. She must have used some sort of relocation chant, and such things can be damaging to the one being transported. Most Takers—those who can manage those chants, at least, which are a limited number even among the Burning-Queen's handmaidens—usually only use them on enemies. I believe that your broken memory is a side effect."
I closed my eyes against those words. Could it really be that simple? Could it have been that, and not me?
Could it be that I am not as broken as I thought?
Sariel's hands settled over mine as I was about to pull Dancer's saddle from his back. I glanced behind me to see his eyes twinkling. "Tell me, Grey, is this nag really good for something? If so, let's make him carry both you and the pack, since we'll need our strength in the bog."
I understood the quiet order. We would be leaving, now, before anything that had happened last night could come back to trouble us. After all, few were likely to be as welcoming as the headman. Obediently, I redid Dancer's girth and strapped my pack to a saddle-ring, then hauled myself up into the seat.
"I've seen more graceful mountain-climbing," Sariel remarked dryly. "Might we want to invest in a ladder for you? It might be helpful." He easily dodged the kick I aimed at him, but became suddenly less nimble when Dancer swung his head around and eyed him narrowly. I used the opportunity to reach out and yank gently at his autumn-hued hair, pulling out a stray leaf as I did.
"Don't be rude," I ordered. "Dancer will eat you, and I don't want him to upset his stomach."
Sariel eyed the stallion just as narrowly, but took a careful step back. "Right. Wouldn't want that, now, would we? It would be terrible, just terrible." He reached out and took Dancer's rein, a touch gingerly. "You're ready, Grey?"
I wound my fingers in the stallion's mane again, tugging my long tunic down and pulling my hair out from underneath me. Then, taking a soft breath, I looked down at the Taker.
Far away, on an open plain, there is a tribe of wanderers that has existed since this land was just that—land and nothing more. These people have a legend, of a beautiful man who sold his soul on a whim, and then had to endure all of eternity alone. They built a tomb for him, this pitiable man, and their greatest poet carved ten lines onto it that read,
When life ends,
The pleasure of a thousand years
Is but a moment's dream.
Is there any truth in reverie?
Do we wake or sleep?
Starlight shines through the fragile flower petals
As their shadows dance around you.