It would not let her rest. She walked the silent halls, half-dreaming in the darkness, until she could barely force one step to follow another; then she would lie down and sleep fitfully while it beat against the walls of her belly as if demanding that she move again.
The days dragged on more or less as they always had, though in some moments she would find herself blinking over a task, her hands resting on a newly folded bed linen half-placed in the closet and no notion of how long she’d stood unmoving, save that what felt like a small fist had begun to beat against her lowest rib. The other women watched her when they thought she wasn’t looking, but so long as she still could walk between the closets and the laundry and wield a needle, no one would send her away and bear the extra work instead. If she did not complain, they would not ask, in so many words; it did not occur to her that they might watch out of sympathy, or wish to help. So the days were long, but it was the nights that were difficult: silent and interminable, lit only by intermittent moonlight from unshuttered windows.
She was the only one awake when the Hunt came. She heard the noise of them outside in the court over the slow tread of the night: the sound of hooves that did not beat with quite the gait of horses, the horns that were neither pipes nor trumpets, and other sounds that even her too-tired mind shied away from trying to identify.
There was a window at the end of the corridor she paced, and when she unlatched the shutter to lean out, the stone below was covered over in roiling shadows. She thought perhaps that she should have been afraid, and wondered briefly why no one else seemed to have waked to the tumult, but mostly her mind was taken up distinguishing strange figures in fine clothing, and the glint of a gem here, or a pair of bone-white horns that might have been part of hat or head. For once the child stayed as still as she did, perhaps feeling the catch to her breath or the swifter beating of her heart.
One of them looked up then, scanning the building, and met her eyes as she looked down. Even through the darkness and the swirling wisps of sleeplessness everpresent at the edges of her vision she saw the face clearly: narrow and oval, with wide human eyes surrounded by features that weren’t human at all. It raised a hand with too many fingers to point at her, and other faces (all different, all as strange) turned up towards her window. The air grew quieter, and much of the movement below her stilled for as long as it took her to blink twice, slowly.
“By what power are you awake?”
She shook her head at the question, gazing down at the antlered brow and pointed teeth of the one who had asked it. Belatedly, an answer made its way as far as her mouth. “I do not sleep.”
“All mortals sleep.” Bright sparks writhed their way across her vision like burning moths and she fell forward towards the windowsill. The child kicked ungently, and she caught herself before falling onto her occupied belly or pitching out the window; she’d not had fainting spells so badly before this. A change in the faces below her made her suspect suddenly that this had not been her own doing, either.
“All mortals sleep,” the antlered creature repeated, but this time she clenched her fingers on the window frame, and nothing happened.
“I shall sleep when the unborn wills it,” she said, her irritation weakening the fog in which her thoughts kept themselves. “What right or purpose have you to be in this place?”
“We have come to collect a debt owed.”
“What debt do you collect in the midnight hours from a sleeping household?” She would have wondered if she were dreaming awake but for the cold of the night air and the child’s stillness.
“We are owed a life. A century ago, we granted one of this house a life, but now we find a use for it again.”
She blinked down at the faces that came and went in the darkness as their owners looked up or away from her. “No one in this house was alive a century ago. You are too late to reclaim that.”
“We care not whether it be the same life; the debt of the father may be paid by a son or a grandson.” The things that were not horses shifted, restless beneath their riders, and stamped against the cobbles; she heard a scraping noise more like claws than hooves, and shuddered.
“No,” she said, and the word echoed across the court, louder than she’d thought she spoke. “You may not kill any of this house.” She had no notion of how she could prevent their doing anything, but she was the only one still awake to try. Somewhere in the house behind her, the lord’s heir slept clutching the wooden horse his father had given him before he had taken all their menfolk away to the wars.
The antlered creature made a sound that might have been laughter. “It is a life we want; a death is of no use to us.”
She blinked down at them and gripped the windowsill, her thoughts turning dizzily in no helpful direction. A different voice called, “Come down to us!” and while the child might keep her from their sleep, it could not stop her feet from carrying her through the dark hall to the back stairs. She went out through the kitchens, snatching up a little knife as she passed and an old cassock that someone had left by the door. There was just room to slip the knife into the cuff of her sleeve, the iron blade cold with nothing but her shift between it and skin. Then she could no longer delay her hands from lifting the bar across the door, and she stepped out among the Hunt, swallowing a whimper as the shadows swirled around her like curious hounds.
The cassock was buttoned for sleeves, but it was still large enough to fit around her body, and she had just time to struggle into it before one of the riders plucked her up with a hand large enough to lift her beneath both arms at once and settled her before one of the others, on a steed that looked nearly horse-like save for its long neck and a striped coat that felt like goosedown beneath her scrabbling fingers. She clutched at the beast’s feathery mane, and the rider behind her wrapped a smooth-scaled arm firmly around her between breast and belly.
She shut her eyes as the Hunt began to move, so she did not see whether they went through the gate or over it, but the scrape and clatter of steps on stone was replaced by the rush of wind beating against her face with the strength of an approaching storm. After a time when she did not fall off, and the wind did not slacken, curiosity overcame terror and she opened her eyes a little bit against the wind.
The Hunt rode in a river of darkness under bright stars. For a confused moment, she thought the stars continued below them as if they rode through the heavens with no further reference to the earth at all, but then a tree branch flashed before one of the lights below her view, and she realized that these were earthly fires she saw. Or less than earthly, perhaps, for this was no festival night to be lit with bonfires, yet there they burned on the ground, and far below her besides. Her fingers tightened in the mount’s feathered fur until she wondered if she would be able to pry them loose should she ever come near the earth again.
The rider who held her, feeling her shudder, spoke calmly near her ear. “We ride over the edge of the mortal lands now; it is not much farther that we travel.” She tried to turn her head to look at the speaker but got only a face full of her own wind-driven hair. By the time she had done shaking her head violently and spit out most of the strands in her mouth and the child had kicked her a time or two for good measure, the Hunt had come down past the branches again and rode through a wood.
The trees were not made with metal limbs and jeweled branches like the stories, but nonetheless she could tell that they were other than mortal when she dared unclench one hand to push the hair from her eyes. Ahead of them, the Hunt slowed, pouring into an area of fresh coppice and fanning out around a huge standard that might have been left uncut for centuries. She blinked at the tree, wondering what woodcraft they used here that timber of such size could be cut or managed. The antlered one who had spoken to her in the court drew rein by the tree’s trunk, made tiny by its size, and the rider who carried her drew up beside him and pointed a slim scaled arm at the darkness by the tree’s base. A ring of wispy silver lights flared around the tree like candles held by invisible hands.
The sting of the cold wind had left her almost numb, but a little warmth began to prickle back into her face as she stared at the thing by the tree’s root. It was bound to the tree, she realized after blinking past the first shock of the face, like a stillborn changeling child, all wide forehead and pinched toothless features beneath. The too-low eyes were closed, and the body, wrapped in cords and covered over with last season’s leaves, was still as death.
“Why do you bring me here?” she asked, when none of the host spoke, and she glanced up to see them watching her, still as statues themselves.
The antlered one spoke again, and she caught the points of bright teeth flashing in the dim light. “Our queen has lain here too long unwaking, and none of us can rouse her sleep. The cast of bones has said that mortal eyes may see what we cannot and free her from this enchantment.”
She looked from him to the bound thing by the tree, and pieces tumbled slowly together in her mind: they could not see the ropes that had bound the thing before them so long that the tree had begun to grow over the bindings. She wondered what they did see, and hoped this was not some changeling set in place of what they looked to wake.
“We will reward you well, if you succeed,” another voice told her from somewhere among the gathered Hunt, though she thought perhaps there was a growl below the words of menace, for what they might do to her if she did not. The only reward she could think to want was to be home, unsurrounded by these creatures, in the sleeping house.
The slim arms of the scaled creature helped her down, and she saw that its narrow torso and wide hips were topped with a woman’s face under a crest of feathers as soft as its steed’s. It was no stranger than the rest of the Hunt. She turned back to the thing bound to the tree.
Kneeling, she followed ropes of twisted linen with her fingers, dislodging leaves, but found no knots to untie. If there had once been knots, they had been swallowed up by the tree’s growth, and she wondered how long the bindings had been here, and how long the Hunt had expected their queen to sleep.
Tearing at the cloth had no effect but to catch at her fingernails and scrape her fingers raw. The little shears she used for the mending might have cut through, but they were tucked neatly into the mending basket, unreachable. That left the knife, which she had hoped to keep hidden against her need, not that she was certain even iron would do her any good against voices that could command no matter whether she wished to follow. She drew it out as carefully as her trembling hands allowed her, trying not to prick herself or her clothing.
The blade was too long to hide in her hand, so she didn’t try, just pulled it loose and pressed it to the bindings, trying not to hear whatever reaction those surrounding her might have. The metal slid through the linen as if it were no more than a single thread rather than great twisted ropes that should have needed sawing at, and the knife carried through on the first cut and burnt a line in the trapped thing’s skin. She jerked her hand back and watched, heart thudding, as the wound smoldered like a badly snuffed candle, but the too-strange eyes did not open. The child kicked her sharply, but none of the watching Hunt came forward to pull her away.
She lowered the knife again, this time cutting carefully as if she were ripping out a seam in fine cloth. Ropes parted. She brushed away the cut ends from neck to ankle and rocked back on her heels. The thing did not move with either the flutter of eyelids or the rise of breath, but the tree behind it, huge as it was, began to tremble.
She looked up just as the ground rocked beneath her, tumbling her backwards. Now there was a commotion around her from the Hunt, but whatever they shouted washed over her ears as she stared up at the tree with its branches tossing madly in no wind she could feel. Something knocked the knife from her hand, and she scrambled away as best she could, treading on her skirt and tripping herself as a root the size of her thigh pulled itself out of the ground. A smaller tendril wrapped itself around the knife, and she could smell the wood scorch as it lifted the steel and moved shakily to plunge the blade into the head of the creature she had just cut free.
The skull made a hollow snapping noise as blade and then branch punched through it. The child and her heart beat uneven rhythms in her chest and the wisp-lights flickered madly as the thing that had been bound broke open like a dried gourd, under root and steel. A mass of tiny things spilled out between the pieces of its shell and melted into the heaving dirt. She could not tell whether they wriggled on their own or if that were nothing but an illusion of the wavering light, but she scooted another awkward distance backwards until she fetched up against something firm. She looked up to see the feathered steed that had brought her here. It stood steady, its three-hooved feet planted firmly on the shaking ground, and bent its head to whiffle at her hair the way a real horse might. She tried to ignore the carrion scent of its breath; it did not seem like to eat or step on her at present, which seemed as near to safety as the moment had to offer.
The tree had reordered itself while she looked away, and now there was no sign of the bound thing or the whipping roots but a softness to the ground. Instead, the side of the trunk had split open like a burst seam. At first her eyes tried to tell her that the thing that stepped out of it was another rider of the Hunt, but the wisp-lights swam around it as it left the tree, and she saw that the tall deer body joined smoothly to the slim torso that rose above it. As strange as the faces of the Hunt had been, this one was indescribable under the wide antlers amidst a cloud of what might have been hair or perhaps a great tangle of leaf and vine. She could not tell.
“I will repay you, mortal woman,” she understood it to say, though she did not think those were the words spoken.
She ran her tongue over dry lips, feeling the horse at her back that was not a horse. “How?”
“Eyes for eyes, and sight for sight, mortal woman. It is a fair weight of payment.” The creature—she supposed it must be the Hunt’s Queen, though it seemed no more female to her than the tree it had come out of—gestured with a hand that unfolded sideways like the bones of a bird’s wing, and one after another the circle of floating lights followed the motion, bobbing towards her like twigs tossed in a stream’s current.
She would have flinched back, had there been space to do so. “I ask only to return home,” she said, and added quickly, “Unharmed. Unchanged. That is repayment enough.”
The sparks danced around her like the swirling clouds sent up by a log added to a fire, throwing everything around her into light-dazzled darkness. Not that she had been able to read anything from the expressions of these creatures when she had seen them.
“You shall return to your place before the dawn,” the Queen-thing told her, though again the words she heard in her head were not the sounds that came to her ears. “But that is no payment, and a price must be given.”
“Then give it to some other of the house who wishes it,” she said, terror making her brave or mad.
There was a silence, broken only by the shifting sounds of the hunt behind her and what she hoped was a breeze tossing the branches of the tree.
“Very well,” said the Queen-thing at last. “Take your poison with you, and return whence you came.”
The dirt roiled beneath her hand, pressing the little knife into her fingers before she could jerk them away. About her, the sparks circled again and then drew in, clustering not around her head and eyes but wrapping instead around her belly until she shone like a glow-worm. And then they sank through her clothes and skin and out of sight, filling her with a deep sense of dread, followed by darkness.
After all the nights of sleepless pacing and the child’s incessant kicking, the pain of birthing was nearly a relief, though the dread she tried her best to forget still lurked darkly in her belly in the breaths between the pain.
The child was a boy, big and red and squalling, and she felt as though she’d been hearing that cry without ears for all the time she’d spent sleepless and waiting for him. The midwife put him to her breast to suck, and he clamped down so hard with his little toothless gums that she gasped, but her eyes were already beginning to memorize the shape of his head and the curve of his tiny brows. And then he turned his little human face up towards hers and opened grass-green eyes with odd oblong pupils at their centers.