Valiant on the Wing
By Chris Szego
14 April 2008
My brother Charcoal always brought home the most interesting things. In spring, he fetched us tender stalks of asparagus; in summer, the fattest, freshest, most delicious mushrooms. He found flowers that Em turned into dye, and grasses that Acorn made into cloth. Once he found a length of ribbon, silky smooth and pink as the sunrise, and kept it a secret until my birthday. Three springs past, he brought home a kitten, teacup-tiny and soft as down. That it turned into a giant cat capable of frightening badgers was just another kind of discovery.
But even for Char, the girl was unusual.
We had just settled in for another winter's evening of washing and weaving and unspoken absence, when he staggered through the door. "Acorn, Mink," he said. "Help me!"
What he supported seemed even less substantial than that kitten. A girl, slim and delicate, with long dark hair in a tangled braid. Fever burned red flowers onto skin pale as snow—paler, even. Frost: something translucent made opaque, but only just. Black and white and stained with red: she was like the mountain markle, that gallant little bird.
After a moment of silence on all sides, the girl spoke. "I'm terribly sorry," she said, in a voice so thin and lilting it even sounded like birdsong, "but it seems. . . ." Then she fell, a leaf dropping, onto the polished wooden floor.
All that night, our mysterious guest fevered. She twitched as restlessly as a baby rabbit, shivering and helpless. We worried about frostbite. Cutting off those slender fingers would have been as easy as pruning Mama's cane rose, and as painfully necessary, but thankfully, her slim hands gradually pinkened. Sometimes she spoke, and her birdsong voice seemed at once terribly frail and thrillingly foreign.
Mink put a hand on my head. "Why don't you sit with her a while? She's not fit for conversation, exactly, but you could write down what she says. So she'll know, later." Or, said that soft stroke against my hair, so someone else might, should the girl not survive.
I spent hours by the girl's bedside, staying quietly out of the way when Mink and Betony wiped her down with cool cloths, exclaiming over the scrapes and scratches they found. I watched her as she slept, and dutifully wrote down anything she said. Ordinary phrases, most of them. Like "Tea? Delightful, thank you." And "How good to see you again." And once, puzzlingly, "Efficiency is important, yes; but remember who are we efficient for." Feverish indeed.
Late on the second night, when even the fire was hushed and still, she said, "Father!" in a voice that was part sob, and all heartbreak.
I did not write that down.
Not long after, her fever broke. I was peering at her face, seeing it dewed and flushed, thinking, Yes, yes, it's over, when she opened her eyes. They were dark, her eyes, but also bright, and again I was reminded of the markle, that tiny hero who would protect a nest not its own. We called the markle "valiant-on-the-wing," and a sighting was considered the best of good luck.
I blinked at her. All of a sudden, she was not a patient but a person, and I didn't know quite what to do. Finally I wrote, in large clear letters, "Been ill. Fever."
I added another line. "Will mend."
Her lips curved upwards just a breath. "I will." It was a promise, rather than agreement. Then, as her lids fluttered shut, she whispered, "Thank you. For your kindness, and your care. Thank you."
After that, I roused Mink, to let her know our stranger had survived the fever and was both sane and extremely polite.
The girl rested quietly the next day, rousing to eat a little porridge, a piece of toast, slices of apple Char cut as thin as paper. Such tiny bites she took. I marvelled, and thought it might be due to the weakness of recovery. Though she didn't seem weak. Weary, and definitely odd. But not weak.
By dint of remaining perfectly still and practically invisible, I managed to keep my seat by her bedside throughout the day. Invisible to everyone, that was, but the girl herself. When she woke from one of her naps, she would first look to me, then around the room with a quick darting glance, like a markle flitting from branch to branch. Then back to me. Every time, I gave a small nod. To let her know she was safe, that she was not alone.
And every time, her lips would curve. Higher and stronger, until at last she gave me a real smile. A small one, but true. When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't help but smile back. That night, I slept in my own bed.
Early the next morning, I followed Mink to the stranger's bedside. To our surprise, the girl was already awake, sitting up straight and calm. She still seemed slight, but somehow much more present. And her skin, though still pale, was the creamy white of daisies, not the chill of polished marble. For the first time, I realized that she was older than I. Older than Emerald and River. As old as Char, even.
"Oh!" said Mink, surprised and pleased. "You look almost well."
"We are quick healers in my family," said our guest. It was the first sentence she'd uttered above a whisper, and I was caught at once by her accent. It sounded like summer, like sails on a ship. I moved closer, hoping she would speak again.
Betony came in, put a hand on the girl's forehead. "No fever at all, now. Good. Good."
"Indeed, you have taken such very good care of me; I cannot thank you enough. I feel almost strong enough to start back down the mountain."
Mink patted her hand. "Perhaps we'll try walking to the kitchen, first."
Seated at our big table, which still sported the dark scar where I'd once forgotten to put down a trivet, the girl seemed even more marvellous. She was taller than I'd thought, almost as tall as Acorn. But so slim and slender she seemed another kind of person entirely.
Acorn cleared his throat. "My dear, what happened to you?"
"I was . . . in a difficult situation, at home," she said. "So I left."
River looked at Emerald, who nodded encouragement. She said, "Where is your home?"
Her eyes were dark and serious. "In Stronghold."
There were exclamations at that. All the way from Stronghold? Away from the city and up the mountain? Into the teeth of the first winter storm? She was lucky to be alive!
"Indeed, I am. If you had not found me," she said, directly to Char, "I doubt I would have lasted another night."
He lifted a shoulder. He didn't like to be thanked, I knew that. So I scratched out a question, and pushed my pad until it touched her fingers.
"My name? Oh, please call me Letty. And you are Larke." She knew my name! Nor was she finished. "Mink and Betony, of course, who have taken such good care of me. You are Acorn, and you, River. And Emerald, have I got that right? And Charcoal."
It wasn't just that she knew our names; it was that after so short an acquaintance—most of it spent in a fever—she could tell River and Emerald apart. We had cousins who still had difficulty there. And she looked, really looked at us, as she named us. Giving each of us in turn her full attention. I felt warm and befriended.
Char seemed to feel it too. "Just Char," he told her, and there was a hint of his old smile around the corners of his lips.
"Char," she said, and smiled back.
We all of us smiled a lot, that evening, or maybe it just felt that way because we hadn't smiled often since . . . well, since. Even the food tasted better. After, Betony brought out honey biscuits, which were my favourite. I ate five, and when no one was looking, took three more.
"There must be something I can do to help," Letty said.
"You're our guest," Acorn began.
But she shook her head. "Char tells me the routes down the mountain might be unpassable until the spring. I cannot simply impose upon you until then; I must contribute."
"How?" asked Char. "No, don't frown at me. Unless you're an expert, you'll not be allowed near the looms."
"I wouldn't presume," she said, as Mink and Acorn both held up their hands, no no no. Em and River sighed with relief. "Nor would I want to interfere with Betony's mastery of the kitchen, though I imagine I can wash dishes like anyone else. You already have a scribe"—that with a small smile at me. "And you . . . do you hunt?"
"Sometimes," said Char. "Mostly I just find things."
"Like lost travellers. I see." She thought a moment. "Cows. I mean, do you have cows? There was milk for the tea. . . . I can milk a cow."
Char laughed. A real laugh, not the tight imitation he'd used since . . . since. "Cows? What would we do with such clumsy beasts up here? We keep goats, lowlander." He sat back. "Do you honestly think you can handle them?"
"Goats," she said consideringly. "Intelligent, stubborn—"
"—Don't forget smelly—" Char put in.
"—Yes, thank you, smelly—fractious, independent. I would need to make them do what I want, and convince them it was their own idea, correct?" She leaned in, drawing us all with her. And her smile was like the summer sun come early, melting a frost not due to soften for ages yet. "Oh, yes. That, I can do."
And she could, too. Better than me, better even than our cousin Fern, who was accounted the mountain's best. Within days, the herd leaders would eat seed corn from her fingers, rarely trying for more with their tough yellow teeth. And if they did try, she just laughed.
There were days the snow fell so hard you couldn't see the house from the barn, and others when it was so cold you had to tie a scarf over your face just to breathe. Those days, Letty aired the herd in their paddock, or just trotted them round the barn. But on every other day, she took the herd right out, like a real mountain girl. I liked those days best, because she always took me, too.
"I need a guide," she told me, "and company. The goats, though lovely, have very little conversation."
I had even less, but that didn't matter to Letty. She asked questions about everything: how deep the snow would fall; how long the light would last; which stars were my favourites, and why. And she never seemed put off by the slow scratch of pencil. She wasn't patient, either, the way Mink was sometimes, a waiting silence determined not to tap a foot. Rather, she sat in a still hush, like the easy pause between breaths. A quiet space in which she enjoyed waiting for me. Listening.
One evening, when the snow had kept us in all day, Mink helped Letty wash her hair. Then she sat next to the woodstove, and combed until it was a froth of midnight, rich and gleaming. I could hardly bear to keep my hands out of it. Even Char, carving something small and intricate, watched. After, Em gathered the few lost hairs. "Can I have these? They'll strengthen the wool."
"Please," said Letty. She tossed the whole shimmering mass over her shoulder, where it streamed down her back and pooled around her hips.
"Eh," said Mink, touching a hand to her own braids, "you've very pretty hair. But it would drive me mad to wear it loose like that. Doesn't it ever bother you?"
"Only when the goats try to eat it, and they've mostly stopped that now. It does get in the way, sometimes, but I've enjoyed having a chance to leave it down. I've been wearing it up for so long."
"Why not cut it?" asked Betony, who'd cut her own hair very short after it had fallen one too many times into her dough.
"I think because of my mother. She had the longest, thickest, most wonderful hair I've ever seen." Acorn gave up the pretence of carding; even River put down her sketchbook. "She could practically make it dance, it was so bright. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world." I could almost hear the smile in her voice. So I didn't expect what came next. "She died when I was twelve, along with the baby who would have been my sister."
Beside me, I heard Char take a breath, let it out.
"Her funeral was very formal," Letty went on, in that same soft remembering voice. "In fact, it was the first time I ever wore my hair up, like a grown woman." She gathered up her hair as she spoke. "My nanny had to twist the combs in tight to keep it all together. They pulled so hard I thought they'd rip out every strand. . . . And that painful prickling stretch just went on. It even hurt afterwards, when I took it down, as if my hair was a muscle that had been worked too hard."
This time, I took a breath. And Char said, "When did it stop? The hurting?"
"It hasn't yet. Which is not to say I didn't get used to it." She let her hair tumble down again, and moved to the bookshelves in the corner. "Now. Where did I leave off?"
I was only too happy to show her. Letty had been steadily working her way through our books, a new one every few days. But this time, she made a muffled sound of triumph, and emerged from behind Acorn's chair with not a book, but a flute.
It was dusty, after so many months untouched, but the sound was clean and true. "Wonderful!" she said. "And how beautiful! Char, did you carve this?" She barely waited for his wordless nod. "My father had one, not nearly so fine. He used to play in the evenings, when it was just the two of us. He taught me, a little."
She was smiling down at the flute, wide and happy. Her eyes glinted bright, like the sun on water, but she wasn't sad. "Oh, I've missed this. How strange that I didn't realize until now." She looked up at us. "And how lovely to have a chance to discover it all over again."
And she put Father's flute to her lips and played. Not the music of our father, but of hers. Bright and cheerful, it bubbled up and out, poured through our house. She played with care, each note defined and crisp, as if new. For a moment, I could almost see a man, showing a small girl how to place her fingers just so. It gave the music weight and texture, and body, as if it could fill a space that had been left so terribly empty. We were no longer seven who should have been nine. We were eight, bridging that awful gap.
Perhaps that was why we loved her so: she helped us make up the difference. Helped us work our way back to whole.
When the blizzard ended, we all of us went outside, even the goats, to breathe deeply and squint against the brilliance of the snow. I kept an eye on Char. He was a restless soul, our Charcoal, less a spent ember than a burning branch. This past summer, he'd wandered further and more often than ever before. But right now, he seemed content to stay. He stood with Letty, and I kept close.
"We'll have to go hunting in the attic," he said. "There's a horn of some kind up there, and a guitar."
"Which will need restringing, if it's been there for any length of time," said Letty. "Do you play?"
"I listen," he said.
She looked at him. "And do you like what you hear?"
He looked back. "Some of it, very much."
There was something going on, some kind of conversation that I couldn't hear, let alone understand. It had to do with the tilt of Letty's head, with the way Char stood. Letty had never seemed quite so foreign; neither had Char. I stepped closer, fascinated.
And Letty saw me, drew me in. "Would you like to learn to play guitar?" she asked me.
I shook my head. Wrote, "Horn. Louder," and they both laughed.
But that secret conversation intrigued me. I began to see it more often. In Char's eyes as he watched Letty play in the evenings. In Letty's hands as she examined the tiny perfect figures he carved. In their voices, when they spoke to one another, even in the midst of everyone else.
One clear evening, when the moon and stars dazzled the snow, I followed them out to the barn, still trailing that elusive connection. It wasn't easy: they had climbed to the barn's loft, and the rafters creaked if stepped on carelessly. When I finally got settled, I was disappointed at first. There was light enough to illuminate them, but they weren't doing anything interesting. Char was carving, of course, and Letty watched to see what would emerge. "Do you know what you're making?" she asked. "Or do you leave it to the wood to tell you?"
"Yes," he said. "Both. Neither, sometimes."
"You carved the mantelpiece, didn't you?"
"It's extraordinary work; you must know that. I can't imagine how you got that wonderful curve into the wood—"
"I grew it that way."
"—I mean, it's so smooth you'd think . . . you grew it? You grew a fireplace?"
He snorted. "No. I grew a tree. Well, a branch, anyway. Trained it into a curve, with iron on each side, and a bit of wire. Took a few years, but when it was ready, I knew what it was for."
Letty laughed, delighted. "And here I thought corsets weren't good for anything."
Corset? Another new word. For Char, too, apparently, because Letty was shaping it into the air as she tried to explain. It looked like Mink, but thinner. ". . . has ribs of bone—or even steel—and you wear it, and tie it tight with cords."
"Like a cage," said Char.
Letty said, "Exactly! So ridiculous. You don't make someone into something with bone and wire, but with words, and gestures. With actions. With love." She took the carving from his hands. "If we're lucky, our parents do that for us when we're young. But sooner or later, we do it for ourselves."
And for others, I thought.
Char stared at his empty hands. Into the cold and lamplit silence he said, "I found them. My parents."
My throat suddenly felt like Acorn's wool before the carding, scratchy and full of hard hidden things. No, I thought, I don't want to see it again. . . .
But Char was still talking. "Last spring. There was a mudslide. As if the mountain suddenly forgot what it was, and turned into a river instead. A rushing river of mud. You can't know what it means until you see it, until it devours you. Crushes you. It was like the end of the world. And so fast. . . . We didn't even have time to scream."
I pressed my hands over my eyes, but I could see it anyway. Mother raising her hand to her eyes to peer up the mountain. Father shouting, grabbing me. Char, running back towards us, his eyes wild.
And then nothing but suffocating pressure and darkness.
"I found them," Char said again, and his voice was muffled. Partly by my pounding heart, partly by the cloud of Letty's hair as he pressed his face into it. "Father was so broken. I only knew him by his ring. Mother was almost worse, because I could still see her face." His breathing was short and harsh. Hurting. It covered the shushing of the straw as it trembled around me.
"If I hadn't found Larke. . . . If she hadn't breathed. I don't . . . I would not have made it. In the midst of the mud and horror and pain, she was a miracle. My miracle." He sounded so tired. Emptied out, the flood receding. "I could not have survived without her. . . ."
His voice disappeared. Letty reached for him. Tears, scalding hot and salty, leaked through my fingers. They fell on something deep inside me, something that had been frozen, and they softened it. Even as I cried, I felt less hollow inside, less dry. As if where there had been a desert, there was now the possibility of water.
Wet-faced, I crept away and left them to the night.
The end of our winter idyll came as suddenly as the thaw came to the river, cracking the ground underfoot in every direction. Mink was hanging laundry in the dry sunny air; Char was helping Acorn chop wood. I was with Letty and the goats, of course, when River pelted out of the house. "People!" she said. "Letty, there's all kinds of people here! Looking for you!"
One of them had followed River into the yard. He was smartly dressed, but underneath his velvet I heard the creak of leather. Letty faced him, her shoulders level, her spine unbending. "Captain Jasson."
"Your Aunt, the Regent, has left Stronghold. She was"—he sorted through words, selected carefully—". . . most strongly encouraged to go."
More people emerged from the house, strangers all. Tall, and pale-faced, wrapped in brilliant velvets and fine wools. Words were tossed about the yard, in tones of gladness and relief. One word in particular made my head ring.
The man, Jasson, said, "We must get back with all haste."
"Yes." I was right beside Letty: only I could hear that the word which sounded so firm was really a sigh. She went into the house.
Everything seemed to happen so fast, yet each moment was rigid and unending. Mink's hands were, for once, entirely empty. They twisted themselves in her apron. Betony and Em came out to join us, and we huddled together, our family, trying to talk sense into a day gone mad. "Did you hear?" we asked each other. "Did you see? Do you think?"
I wrote, "Princess?" The pencil felt awkward in my hand.
And then Acorn said to Char, his voice rising, "What do you mean, you knew? Knew what?"
"Who she is," Char said. "Princess Bianca Scarlett Ebonie des Neiges, the daughter of the King."
"But the King died last fall," said Mink, bewildered. "The Princess disappeared. There was talk of poison, that the Regent . . . oh. Oh."
"She came up here to get away," said Acorn, piecing it together.
"Until her birthday," Char finished. "Until she was of age."
"But . . . a princess," said Betony. Incredulous. "She did our dishes. She herded our goats!"
"Her father was the only one who ever called her Letty." Char's voice was quiet and calm. As quiet and calm as a smouldering log, the kind that caused fires that changed entire countries. "She needed to remember that. To hear that name from . . . people who loved her."
Our house had been built with seven children in mind, big and rambling. But all the people piling in and out of it made it seem no more than a cottage. Just now they were boiling around the door. The door which Letty stepped through.
Or rather, the Princess did.
She was dressed in a red velvet so rich and lustrous it shone brighter than any jewel. She wore a sash of white silk, cold and smooth as the deepest winter ice. It changed her, that sash, squeezed her shape out of all recognition. As she came closer, I could see her hair, piled high and dark, and gleaming even more than the dress. It was threaded through with a circlet of gold, but her hair was the real crown. And beneath it, her skin shone like the brightest of the midwinter snow, terrible in its beauty. Our Letty was gone; only the Princess remained.
But when she spoke, oh, it was Letty still. Hushed and hurried, but Letty. "I must go. I am needed. But I wanted to thank you. To tell you . . . that you saved me. All of you." She touched Mink's hand, Acorn's. Then River and Emerald and Betony. She stroked my face, cupped my chin in her hand. Only Char she did not touch. "I cannot thank you enough. I can only promise to think of you—" her voice trembled, was ruthlessly firmed. "I will remember you with joy."
Black and white and touched with red: in her finery she reminded me again of the mountain markle. Before she could take that first step away from us, Char held out his hand. On his palm was one of his carvings, an apple: tiny, polished, and perfect, hanging from a slender thread. She took it, slipped it around her neck.
The others glanced away, but I was too young for delicacy. I watched, and they only looked at one another. It might have been a promise made; it might have been goodbye. But it was the end of a time I had loved, and it cracked something inside me.
"Letty," I said, and after so much silence, my voice was scarcely more than a whisper. "Don't forget us."
Her smile, then, that wonderful smile, so warm and happy. I could see that even through my tears, through the tears of my family at the sound of my voice. We held each other as we watched the Princess leave our home, our mountain. Flying away, so valiant on the wing.