Airs Beneath the Moon
Beyond the barn’s single, unglazed window, the stars began to dissolve, one by one, drowning in the chill gray light of dawn. The cows huddled together, head to tail, for comfort and for warmth. The goats stood silent and uneasy in their night pen, listening to the little dun mare laboring in the box stall. It had gone on all night, Char and her mistress grunting and groaning together. Now, as the sky began to brighten, Char’s time had come at last.
Char pushed. Larkyn Hamley, boots braced in the wet straw, pulled. Birth fluids soaked her tabard and her tangled skirts, and filled the stall with an odor both acrid and sweet. Lark knew the smell to be the essence of coming life, of the force that made the crops grow and the moon wax and wane. It was also the scent of death, of the melting of one time into another. Larkyn Hamley was a girl of the soil and the seasons, and her blood surged with the power of the moment, the alchemy of life striving to be.
“Once again, Char,” she panted. Salty sweat dripped in her eyes, but she had no hand free to wipe it away. She tried to lift her shoulder to get teh worst of it, but a fresh spasm wracked Char’s body, and Lark set herself again to pull ont he foal’s slick fetlocks. “Lovely girl,” Lark said. “That’s my brave girl. Once again!”
The mare’s sides rippled with effort. Lark’s hands cramped, and she begged Kalla for strength, even though she, an Uplands farm girl, had no right to pray to the horse goddess. It was for Char, poor little Char, her foundling.
Lark knew nothing of horses except what the dun mare had taught her. Horses were rare in the Uplands, and there had never been one on Deeping Farm, nor in the village of Willakeep. Lark had stumbled upon Char standing ankle-deep in the icy waters of the Black River, her ribs standing out like the curved pickets of the haymow, and her hide, the color of smoke from the autumn chimneys, torn by brambles. Neither Lark nor her brothers knew then that Char was with foal, but now, just as sharp-toothed winter began to loosen its bite on the Uplands, she had come to term.
The foal lay widdershins, hind feet first. Lark had tried everything she knew to turn it, without success. Once it was on its way, there was nothing left but to see it through. She gasped for air, in rhythm with Char. She tugged, and Char groaned. The mare gave one last heave. There was a deep, rushing sound, and the foal’s body slid, limp and awkward, legs asprawl, to the matted straw.
A gray shroud, streaked with red, masked its nose and mouth. Lark ripped at the gelatinous stuff with her fingers, clearing the tiny muzzle. She bent, and blew fiercely into the foal’s nostrils. A shuddering breath rewarded her, and a little mewling cry. She cried out herself, exclaiming in wonder as she cradled the wet creature in her arms. His coat felt gluey and rough beneath her hands.
When she was certain his breathing was steady, she lifted her eyes. “Char, look!” she said softly. “Look at your little one!”
The mare always responded to Lark’s voice, had done so even on that very first day, when she was so weak she could barely walk. Lark had coaxed her, stumbling step by stumbling step, through the fields to the barn. But now, Char lay exhausted. Her ribs barely moved, and her black forelock tangled in her long eyelashes. Even as Lark watched, the little mare’s breathing slowed., and her dark eyes fixed on some point only she could see.
“Oh, no,” Lark whispered.
Lark was a country girl. She knew the look of death, from slaughtering days, from accidents, from her own mother’s illness. She understood the dimming of the light in the mare’s eyes, the rattle of her last breath, her sigh of release, the stare into nothingness.
Lark, little more than a child herself, hugged the motherless foal to her breast, and cried. She gave in to her grief and exhaustion and shock, and sobbed.
The foal began to mewl and wriggle in her arms, reminding her of the dawn chill. Her wet clothes were icy, and the foal, too, was wet and cold to the touch. She had to get him dry.
She had brought a pile of old towels to the barn with her when she saw that char’s time had drawn near. Now she plucked one from the stack and gently rubbed the foal’s head and neck. He struggled to his feet, leaning against her, long-legged, big-eyed, quaking with weakness. She steadied him with one hand, and reached along his withers and spine with the other to scour away the remnants of the birth sac.
The slow morning sun slanted through the window. Lark felt it on her cheeks. It would be gilding the frosty grasses in the north pasture, glittering on the fallow fields to the south, shining on the slate roof of the farmhouse, silvering the scraps of late snow. It brightened the stall so she could see that the colt was as black as the blackstone of the Uplands that gave the river its name.
She slid the towel down the foal’s ribs, and stopped. Something stayed ehr hand, some solid, living structure beneath the towel.
The foal made the little choked sound again, a sob of his own. With care, Lark pushed him away from her to see what it was that grew below his withers, behind his shoulders.
What she saw filled her with awe and dread.
Everyone knew that an animal such as this belonged to the Duke, and the duke alone. Oc was a tiny and beleaguered duchy, with scarce resources. Its desolate coastline lay open to the sea lanes, coveted by other duchies, by bigger principalities. Creatures such as this, Char’s foal, were Kalla’s special gifts. They were Oc’s most precious resource, the envy of every duke, prince, and king. To tamper with their bloodlines was to commit high treason. Had any of the Hamleys realized…
But of course they hadn’t. How could they? They could never have guessed that little Char carried such a marvel. That such a being would appear here, on Deeping Farm, was an event of such magnitude Lark could hardly comprehend it.
With trembling fingers, she caressed the colt’s slender head, and then held him close, her arms gentle around his fragile neck.
“By Zito’s ears, little one!” she breathed. “You have wings!”
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