Mam always warned me against trying to hide if the dark riders came. They’ll find you, she whispered. You can’t run and hide, like a mouse in the dirt, like a bird under the bushes. They’ll snatch you up, never to be heard from again.
All the oldsters used the riders as a threat. Mind the priest, or the riders will take you to hell. Watch those goats, hear, or the riders will give you a punishment you’ll not forget. And it was always whispered; yelled threats never held the same terror as those you had to strain to hear.
But after Da died, there was too much work to do to attend to such silliness. Mam was too tired from taking in washing from the big houses in the valley to do more than give the little ones a quick kiss each night before tucking them into bed without a story. Then it was time to wash up the dinner dishes and, if we weren’t already half asleep on our feet, do whatever darning or piecework we’d been lucky enough to get that month.
My days were hauling water, tending animals and children, sewing, cleaning. At twelve, I had calluses to rival those of any barn boy. At fourteen, my first suitor came calling, but marriage was just more of the same and the screaming brats were your own then. I knew from older cousins that going into service afforded a half day off every month, but too much yes ma’am-ing and yes sir-ing and lecherous gropes in dark stairwells and no recourse. So on the darkest days I imagined a life without broken and torn fingernails and daydreamed of a young lord, separated from the hunt, chancing upon our shack and finding me alone in the dooryard. But we all know that good fortune doesn’t come out of the forest, only strangers looking for a handout or something to steal. At fifteen, I was too tired to realize that I was trapped.
Mam never told me the truth of things.
I started to use the threat myself. When the babies wouldn’t stop hitting, I whispered that the riders would come and eat them up in one big bite. And when Tommy came home with his new britches torn, I grabbed him ’round the collar and stared into his wide green eyes and, with as much malice as I could heat up in myself, told him that he was the perfect size for a slave to the riders. It worked a bit while they were still little enough to believe that faeries bring babies and owls are the spirits of the dead and the vicar’s teeth are made of clay. But it hadn’t worked on me in years. I’d stopped believing. That was my first mistake.
My second came one autumn day when I was overtired and full of self-pity and anger at Mam for going into town to see what she could get on credit, only I knew what that sort of credit was and how could we care for yet another child? Karen was ten and old enough to help with the washing, and I promised her an extra piece of bread and cheese if she’d do my share of the work just once. But she sniffed at me in a way she’d learned from those town girls and said that she wasn’t going to turn into a drudge like me. So I slapped her. I barely felt my hand come out and crack across her cheek before I realized what I’d done. And I knew that Mam would do me worse when she found out. So I gave Karen another chance to save us both and said take my cheese and bread for the rest of the week only help me and don’t tattle. But it was too late. My handprint burned on her cheek and she started to wail for Mam, forgetting that we were alone.
I felt the shame of what I’d done turn to panic, so I told Karen, loud and clear, that the riders would come and take her in the night and she’d never see Mam or the others again. And as I said it I felt the power of it, setting my hands to trembling. She turned away and began to run, and I yelled after her that it was true, the riders would come for her.
I invited them the same as if I’d sent it all fancy in ink on fine paper, sealed with wax.
As Karen ran wailing toward the garden, the clanging sound of the forge carried on the wind. The pounding doubled, then tripled, echoing across the valley, and beneath it came the scratchy sound of curled brown leaves skirting along the edges of the house. The pounding redoubled and came closer, and I recognized it not as the smith’s heavy hammer but as hooves. My hands stopped shaking, and my chest went all hollow as if I no longer needed to breathe. Karen disappeared around the side of the house, her red hair flying to match the gold and orange of the trees just beyond. And as I turned to welcome the guests that I’d invited—for I’d learned from watching Mam with the tax collector that hospitality can divert less-than-friendly intentions—I finally realized the true horror of the riders.
No one ever told me they were beautiful.
Because that is their real danger. Something big and hairy and stinky and slobbering might stupefy you for a moment before you run, looking for a place to hide or a weapon to defend yourself. But their wild beauty is such that you’re unable to turn away. And I finally realized why the whispering and the secrecy, because only grownups who accept hard days of drudgery as their responsibility can resist the lure. But a tired child in an unfair world will take any means of escape.
And as I stood in the dooryard and watched them bear down on me, I saw out of the corner of my eye the washing flap on the line and the firewood waiting to be split and the chickens to be fed. I simply lifted my hands in invitation, and the leader bent down from her horse, all grace, and in a span of time barely longer than it takes to sigh she asked me if I dared and I said yes and then the world turned sideways and streamed by all yellow and red as they carried me away.