The noon sky was just pale enough for her blue cloak to match it: the perfect concealment. She could extend a hand and believe there was no arm to anchor it. A traveler on roads below might look up at the birds or the sun and never know that Amarantha watched him from the highest tower.
But there were no travelers. There had never been. Not for the years that she had kept vigil.
Instead Amarantha watched the birds, wheeling and diving among argent clouds. She watched the distant games of life and death played by mice and foxes. She watched the lakes and fells of Coronach fading into sky. She watched her hand, the end of her sublime transparency, curling, clawing at the rampart’s wind-scoured stones as though to tear the castle down, as though beyond her wrist, beyond the cloak, her hand wasn’t a part of her at all.
At times Amarantha watched her fellow Vigil-Keepers from the corners of her eyes, a kind of game: whose attention could stay longest fixed, unblinking, on the horizon? Who could longest stave off doubt?
She had already lost.
What did she wait for with such patience, such dedication? No traveler had passed for years upon the roads of Coronach. No farmer tilled the empty meads. The castle kept no army. There was nothing to protect. Once, there had been a kingdom here. One weak decision, on a cold night long ago, had taken it all away.
That night, her shift ended, Amarantha could not sleep. She took her cloak, left her cell and went to the Lady.
The Lady lay abed, though not sleeping.
“Lady,” said Amarantha. “I am failing you.”
“Come nearer,” said the Lady of Coronach. “Age has dimmed my hearing, if not my sight.” The Lady’s eyes, once blue, were now white as wolf’s eyes, icy, intent and desiring. Her own vigil-cloak hung within her reach. Its color too had aged from blue to gray. Dust hung thick upon it. The Lady’s nurse sat nodding at the hearth.
“The older I become,” the Lady said, “The more I am reminded it was I who failed you.”
The nurse coughed awake. She stirred the fire. “Don’t wait for the spirits’ mercy, Lady. You’ve atoned. Die in peace.”
“When will my people stop atoning?” asked the Lady.
A curl of Amarantha’s hair strayed from her hood; the Lady caught it in her virtuoso’s fingers. “Don’t let the pain in, Amarantha. The wind has harmed your innocence enough. Don’t you think I know your loyalty? You have served since you were born. So what if you daydream for a little while, stare at the moss on the rampart? We’ve been patient this long.”
At dawn Amarantha sat among the crenellations in the lee of her tower, eating porridge and berries she barely tasted. Her fellow Vigil-Keepers threw looks at her that spoke what their silence didn’t; their eyes were rarely turned, save with purpose. “Perhaps you think the punishment of Coronach is just,” said their expressions, “that the Lady, who was younger than we when the crone of the curse came to Coronach’s gate, turned away a sharp-tongued old vagabond not out of fear for her people, but cruelty.”
The cook’s boy who filled their wooden bowls received barely a glance, though his head was bowed low beneath his own burdens. He was trapped and lonely as they, his service to the Lady just as harsh–yet Amarantha caught his smile.
“I love the Lady,” Amarantha said. As though she had to prove it, she climbed the steps to begin her watch early.
“Good day,” the cook’s boy wished her as she fled.
The wind shifted south. The change showed in the tops of the pines that grew in the courtyard, in the shape of the stain the dew left on the tower. A silver cast crossed the sky; today her blue cloak would offer no concealment.
When the sun rose, Amarantha met the cook’s boy again on the rampart. He no longer slouched, as he had that morning, but threw back his head. His black curls like lambswool danced in the wind. Was it any worse than pity that made her break her vigil for a second day, to let him share her span of the horizon?
From a sack on his shoulder, he withdrew and assembled the parts of a kite. It was heavy and clumsy, with a sail of black burlap, a frame wired together from kindling and wooden spoons.
Such a thing could never fly. Amarantha feared her heart would fall with it. But she knew it would have hurt her worse to stop him.
The south wind roared among the towers, carrying the scent of rain. The cook’s boy dropped his ragged kite from the rampart, and it did fall, a dozen feet before a strong gust caught it. Then the kite spread its wings and twitched its forked tail and rose above the castle. The cook’s boy raised a fist in the air, wrapped tight with twine.
For the Lady’s sake, Amarantha wrenched her gaze from the boy and his kite and fixed her concentration on the distance. For a generation, no traveler had tread Coronach’s roads or lakeshores. Perhaps today might be the day the spirits’ messenger would come to free them.
Amarantha lost herself in the breadth of her vantage.
For an instant, she took the flash of dark motion for the approach of Coronach’s savior. Then the windswept kite crossed her vision again. Amarantha shook herself. How could such a threadbare illusion of freedom so easily fool her? Where was the clarity the Lady taught?
She studied the other Vigil-Keepers out of the corners of her sight, seeking reproach. She saw one raise a knuckle to his eye, as though to brush out sand.
The cook’s boy practiced with his kite through the morning and past noon, teaching it new feats. He learned to let the kite dive over the courtyard, skimming the blue-green tips of the pines, then pull back to safety from the brink of disaster. He taught it to circle the castle towers, letting it swoop up on the Vigil-Keepers from below. Once, he reeled the kite in–but only to fix it with a second string and set it free again. How carelessly it turned and dipped–at times seeming to plummet, but somehow, by the boy’s nimble skill, surviving even the sharpest shear!
His final trick, the finest trick of all, was to fly the kite so high that it disappeared into the clouds. Amarantha caught herself feeling sad the kite had flown away–though of course she knew that the boy still held the string.
That night, the Vigil Keepers ate their evening meal without words, but this time, without accusing looks. The boy and his kite had beaten them all.
The cook served them. His son had not come down from the tower.
Before dawn, Amarantha threw the blankets from her, took her cloak and a lamp and walked the high corridors, past narrow windows where the cast of clouds obscured the stars. Not towards the Lady’s chamber, no–Amarantha could not bear to lay such bittersweetness in her dying mistress’ lap. But she had to speak to someone.
She went out the oaken door to the south stair and descended, shielding the lamp-flame with her body from the wind. She entered the castle, passing through cavernous halls, now empty, where the kingdom once had come to celebrate. How long since she had walked here, seen the dead grandeur, heard the echoes of footsteps lost to Coronach’s curse? The cook’s son–Amarantha didn’t even know his name–the cook’s son heard these echoes every day.
In the Story Hall, where the Lady had commissioned etchings chronicling the curse, Amarantha’s footsteps stopped; the echoes faded. She held the lantern high to mark the scenes. The Lady, turning the crone from the castle gate. The crone’s death in the cold. The ghost, appearing in the Lady’s chamber, cloaked in moonlight. The shrouding of Coronach, the kingdom taken, the castle left alone on empty meads.
A single, selfish act brought on by fear: a poor old woman left to die alone. The Lady, young, fearful, new to rule, misled by bedtime stories. Fate was too cruel. She had atoned. They all had atoned.
Amarantha shrouded her lamp and went on to the kitchen. The cook toiled, baking, his face hard and red in the light of the oven. She complained of cold. He brought hot milk and brandy.
Amarantha sat in a heap of empty grain sacks, sipping at her drink. The cook returned to the oven.
“Your son,” she said. “I know he loves his kite. We all love it too. But he mustn’t fly it from the ramparts anymore. It does us all harm, as much joy as it brings.”
He lay the bread paddle down and stared at Amarantha, his hard face convulsing strangely. “You are here to provoke me?” His hands twitched, then closed around a heavy wooden peel. “My son. The only child this castle has seen since you, Amarantha, were young. And you, a Vigil-Keeper. You saw it happen. You were there!” His knuckles whitened. He lifted the peel like a weapon.
Amarantha spilled milk on the floor. She scrambled back against the sacks of grain. “What is it? What do you mean?”
“Three days ago my son’s foot slipped on a patch of damp moss as he climbed the south stair. He fell over the castle wall. He is gone.”
Amarantha did not sleep. At dawn, no one brought breakfast. Amarantha’s belly rumbled. She remembered the berries of the day before, disbelieving.
A soft rain broke as the Vigil-Keepers ascended the towers. The horizons were as empty as they had always been. The trance of the Vigil came over them.
Then the sable-headed spirit appeared at Amarantha’s side, the kite in his hands. “Will you try it?”
She reached, trembling, for the twine.
The kite pulled fiercely; she was amazed he’d been able to hold it. She felt its every motion through the string, every curl and leap, as though it fought against her. It was as if the kite were struggling to be free.
It dragged her towards the brink, towards the emptiness of gray sky and mist and green meads. A gust of wind caught Amarantha’s cloak; it billowed around her like a sail, like wings. Amarantha looked down, down to the foot of the tower where somewhere, stolen by the curse, the body of the cook’s son must lie crumpled. She teetered, on the verge of falling.
The ball of twine slipped from her hands. The kite rose into the mist and was gone, and Amarantha felt ashamed.
The spirit laughed. He touched her cheek.
Amarantha shed her clear blue cloak. The wind caught it and dragged it up after the kite towards the clouds. She lifted her arms, her hands she was suddenly sure were her own, and spread them wide to let the wind rush beneath–for they were arms and hands no longer, but wings, with feathers of sable edged in white. She took one step and leapt.
Two birds circled and dove in the sky above the towers of Coronach: one of burlap, the other of blood.
The Vigil Keepers’ cries soared up to Amarantha from below. She saw them running down the south stair, heedless of the gusts. For the first time in a generation, no one kept vigil on the castle walls but a laughing boy on the highest tower, arms folded, curls dancing.
Then one gray-cloaked figure emerged from the oaken door and climbed to the tower, hunched and bone-thin, leaning heavily against the wall, her virtuoso’s fingers clinging to the mossy stones.
The Lady of Coronach collapsed in a heap beside the spirit at the summit of the tower. Amarantha dove past them, beating her wings, the boy’s kite chasing behind her.
“Go,” said the Lady. She closed her white eyes.
The castle’s gates opened. The last of its inhabitants ran out across rain-dusted fields.