Yrion Blight stopped halfway between the woodpile and his family cemetery. His nose caught a sickly sweet scent, and he turned to see a low fog rising up from the dell to his right. It moved as if pushed by a wind he could not feel, crept into the cemetery and over the moss-covered gravestones of his grandfathers and great-grandfathers, five generations of Blights laid to rest. His father’s was there too, the whitest of the stones, placed there only a month ago, just four mornings after Yrion’s tenth birthday.
The fog reached the top of the hill and a riderless horse stepped out of the mist, silhouetted against the moon’s white face. Steam rose from the beast, as if it had created the fog in its wake. It was the largest horse Yrion had ever seen, larger than any horse should ever be. The drifting fog enveloped its hindquarters. The horse seemed to be waiting.
For what? Yrion wondered.
Dread gripped him. He thought he could see its onyx eye staring him down.
Somehow he knew the answer. A rider.
The steed raised its front hoof and stamped it twice. Yrion could feel the thuds in his chest.
Not just any rider; it’s waiting for me.
He didn’t know how he knew it. He sensed it. He could feel it in his chest, as if the horse were speaking to his heart. He shivered, and his dread pushed that voice away.
As if in response, the beast bolted, galloping up the road that ran along the ridgeline. Its hooves rumbled like thunder as it disappeared into the maze of trees.
The fog followed it, slow and ominous; it frosted the moon’s face, dampened the glow. Yrion shivered again. Frost had gathered on the grass too. It felt cold enough to snow.
Yrion rushed to the woodpile, filled the crook of his elbow with a few logs, and hurried back into his family’s cottage. He went straight to the fire, added two logs, and dropped the others in a messy pile next to the hearth. He sat cross-legged and blew upon the coals. Flames leapt up in seconds, and he held his hands to their warmth.
“Don’t get comfortable,” his big sister Laurel said from the kitchen table. “We’re not through yet.”
Laurel had been quizzing him all evening. Their family’s auction was next week and it fell to Yrion, the only male left in the household, to do the bartering. Buckets, barrels, troughs, scythes, sickles, shovels, everything had to go. Laurel had calculated their asking prices and lowest acceptable offers. All Yrion had to do was memorize them.
“Asking price of the hame,” Laurel said.
A dollar and a quarter? Yrion wondered. Or two and a nickel? His eyes tried to wander down to the slip of paper before him where all the figures were written down.
“No peeking,” his sister added. “Use your brain.”
He looked back at her. “Two and a nickel?”
“Two and a nickel is the low.”
“Oh. Which one’s a dollar and a quarter?”
His sister leaned back and growled at the ceiling. “A dollar twenty-five is the asking price of the sickle, the low for the scythe. We’ll also take a dollar twenty-five for all five buckets. Thirty cents each.”
Yrion didn’t know how she kept it all straight. He knew he had to learn it but now all he could think about was that horse up on the road. It couldn’t have been as big as it looked; it must have been a trick of the moonlight—for even the moon looked bigger on the horizon. And it wasn’t waiting for him; it had stopped and stared for the same reason he had. Horses were curious like that.
“Yrion. Yrion,” Laurel snapped.
Yrion looked back to his sister. She wasn’t staring at the ceiling anymore; she was glaring at him. Her dark blue eyes could frost the blazing logs in the hearth.
“The asking price of the hame?” she asked.
“Two-forty. Mother, will you…what are we going to do with him?”
Lyra Blight sat in her rocker next to Yrion, a quilt draped over her legs, hemming her late husband’s pants so they’d fit her son. Her close-set eyes peered down a high-bridged nose. At her temples, stripes of white streaked her dark red hair; they’d appeared in the past month, as if Corvus’ death had caused her great stress. But that was the only change Yrion noticed. She was rocking peacefully now and humming a nameless tune.
“Perhaps take a break,” she said, eyes on her needlework.
Laurel sighed and pushed herself back from the table. “I’m turning in,” she said. She crossed the room, stopped behind the rocker, and leaned in to kiss her mother on the head.
Laurel’s dark red hair matched their mother’s—it was almost purple in certain lights. Otherwise, she took after their father: a thin, symmetrical face with high cheekbones, a nose that tapered to a delicate point, small ears that didn’t jut out like Yrion’s.
“Don’t stay up too late,” Laurel said to him. “Meeting tomorrow.”
He turned back to the fire. “I remember.”
Town meetings were another task he had to undertake in his father’s stead. The thought of it dropped a weight into his belly. But when he pushed the thought away, the image of the black horse replaced it. He hugged his knees and rocked in place. So many things to worry about, so many things that frightened him. He didn’t know how he would face them all.
“Mother,” he said.
“Tell me again about the Nightsteed.”
She resituated the pants on her lap.
“You’re a little old for those stories, aren’t you?” she asked.
Yrion slumped his shoulders. He was too old for a lot of things that still scared him. He picked a splinter off the hearth and flicked it into the fire.
“When boys and girls are lazy by day,” his mother began, “their spirits become restless and wander by night. And if they aren’t careful, they’ll wander into the Hall of the Nightfather.
“Now, the Nightfather is the laziest that ever was. Grass grows too fast for him; seasons change too fast for him. And if vexed, he puts his curse on things, casts a darkness upon them to slow them down.
“One night, he heard a whinnying in the forest. He followed the cries to a clearing surrounded by a thick tangle of thorns, and there a monstrous horse—twenty hands at the withers—charged round and round, trapped on all sides by the thicket.
“‘You see’, the Nightfather said to the briars and brambles, ‘your fast growing has gone and caused a ruckus.’ He reached out and touched some of the thorns. They blackened and fell limp, and a small gap formed in the thicket.
“But then a very lazy idea came to him: ‘If I had a horse to ride, I wouldn’t have to walk.’ So he climbed up a nearby tree, and when the horse charged through the gap in the briars the Nightfather hopped down upon its back.
“He soon regretted the idea. This horse wanted to run free, and it was the fastest and wildest that ever lived. Yelling ‘whoa!’ spurred it onward; pulling its mane spurred it onward. All the Nightfather could do was try to slow it with his curse. But the horse sensed that wicked touch, reared up and bucked him, but not before the curse turned its coat black as a moonless midnight.
“The curse preserved the beast, and it runs forever free. Some folk say they’ve seen it—the Nightsteed they call it—charging up and down Witching Hour Road.”
“And what happened to the Nightfather?” Yrion whispered.
“Not far from where the Nightsteed dropped him, an old abandoned house sat wrapped and tangled in a hundred years of thicket. It was as good a place as any to call home, and the Nightfather decided then and there he was through with horses, through with just about everything. So he cursed the surrounding plants and crawling branches so that nothing could grow and disturb him, and he went inside.
“There he sits, waiting for Everdark, the far away time when all things—even the Nightfather—will find rest. And he does not like visitors coming and going. When restless spirits wander there, he uses his curse to imprison them in his Hall. If a boy wishes to avoid that fate, he best work hard by day to keep his spirit from wandering by night.”
Yrion shivered and laid another log on the fire. He saw the others he’d dropped in the messy pile and began arranging them in a neat stack.
“Mother,” he said, “I don’t mean to be a lazy boy.”
His mother kept rocking and knitting.
“Numbers just don’t stick in my head the way they do for Laurel.”
“Hush now. You’ll find your place.”
His place. If he didn’t shape up, his place would be in the Hall of the Nightfather.
Yrion looked about him. An iron poker leaned against the hearth. Sprigs of sage and rosemary dried upon the mantle. A rug beater stood in the corner, his father’s musket beneath it. Yrion knew nothing about working iron or growing herbs. Beating rugs made him sneeze and he was a bad shot—Laurel had the steady hands. She could do everything; Yrion couldn’t do anything. And just when he’d gotten old enough to start learning, his father died.
Father died. It still didn’t seem possible. Corvus had been such a presence, always on the move, getting things done, not a lazy bone in his body. All those years watching him hard at work…Yrion should have been paying better attention, not concerning himself with children’s stories. He needed to put this Nightsteed nonsense out of his mind.
Maybe it was Banyon, he thought, Uncle Cetus’ draft horse. That horse was always breaking loose. And it was big too. It must have been Banyon up on the road. Not the Nightsteed—there was no such thing.
Yrion was too old for those stories.