Three Twilight Tales

(Originally published, but never paid for, in Firebirds Soaring, ed. Sharyn November. Republished in Year’s Best Fantasy)

Jo Walton
Three Twilight Tales

1

MichaelMaggs, via Wikimedia CommonsOnce upon a time, a courting couple were walking down the lane at twilight, squabbling. “Useless, that’s what you are,” the girl said. “Why, I could make a man every bit as good as you out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine.”
“I’d like to see you try,” said the man.
So the girl reached up to where the bright silver moon had just risen above the hills and she drew together a handful of moonshine. Then she twisted together two rhymes to run right through it and let it go. There stood a man, in a jacket as violet as the twilight, with buttons as silver as the moon. He didn’t stand there long for them to marvel at him. Off he went down the lane ahead of them, walking and dancing and skipping as he went, off between the hedgerows, far ahead, until he came to the village.
It had been a mild afternoon, for spring, and the sun had been kind, so a number of people were sitting outside the old inn. The door was open, and a stream of gold light and gentle noise was spilling out from inside. The man made of moonshine stopped and watched this awhile, and then an old widower man began to talk to him. He didn’t notice that the moonshine man didn’t reply, because he’d been lonely for talking since his wife died, and he thought the moonshine man’s smiles and nods and attention made him quite the best conversationalist in the village. After a little while sitting on the wooden bench outside the inn, the old widower noticed the wistful glances the moonshine man kept casting at the doorway. “Won’t you step inside with me?” he asked, politely. So in they went together, the man made of moonshine smiling widely now, because a moonshine man can never go under a roof until he’s been invited.
Inside, there was much merriment and laughter. A fire was burning in the grate and the lamps were lit. People were sitting drinking ale, and the light was glinting off their pewter tankards. They were sitting on the hearthside, and on big benches set around the tables, and on wooden stools along the bar. The inn was full of villagers, out celebrating because it was a pretty day and the end of their work week. The man made of moonshine didn’t stop to look around, he went straight over to the fireplace.
Over the fireplace was a mantelpiece, and that mantelpiece was full of the most extraordinary things. There was a horn reputed to have belonged to a unicorn, and an old sword from the old wars, and a dragon carved out of oak wood, and a candle in the shape of a skull, which people said had once belonged to a wizard, though what a wizard would have wanted with such a thing I can’t tell you. There was a pot the landlord’s daughter had made, and a silver cup the landlord’s father had won for his brewing.  There were eggs made of stone and a puzzle carved of wood that looked like an apple and came apart in pieces, a little pink slipper said to have belonged to a princess, and an iron-headed hammer the carpenter had set down there by mistake and had been looking for all week.
From in between a lucky horseshoe and a chipped blue mug, souvenir of a distant port, brought back by a sailor years ago, the moonshine man drew out an old fiddle. This violin had been made long ago in a great city by a master craftsman, but it had come down in the world until it belonged to a gypsy fiddler who had visited the inn every spring. At last he had grown old and died on his last visit. His violin had been kept carefully in case his kin ever claimed it, but nobody had ever asked for it, or his body either, which rested peacefully enough under the grass beside the river among the village dead.
As soon as the man made of moonshine had the violin in his hands he began to play. The violin may have remembered being played like that long ago, in its glory days, but none of the villagers had ever heard music like it, so heart-lifting you couldn’t help but smile, and so toe-tapping you could hardly keep still. Some of the young people jumped up at once and began to dance, and plenty of the older ones joined them, and the rest clapped along in time. None of them thought anything strange about the man in the coat like a violet evening.
It happened that in the village, the lord of the manor’s daughter had been going about with the blacksmith’s apprentice. The lord of the manor had heard about it and tried to put a stop to it, and knowing his daughter only too well, he had spoken first to the young man. Then the young man had wondered aloud if he was good enough for the girl, and as soon as he doubted, she doubted too, and the end of the matter was that the match was broken off.
Plenty of people in the village were sorry to see it end, but sorriest was a sentimental old woman who had never married. In her youth, she had fallen in love with a sailor. He had promised to come back, but he never did. She didn’t know if he’d been drowned, or if he’d met some prettier girl in some faraway land, and in the end the not knowing was sadder than the fact of never seeing him again. She kept busy, and while she was waiting, she had fallen into the habit of weaving a rose wreath for every bride in the village. She had the best roses for miles around in the garden in front of her cottage, and she had a way with weaving wreaths too, twining in daisies and forget-me- nots so that each one was different. They were much valued, and often dried and cherished by the couples afterward. People said they brought luck, and everyone agreed they were very pretty. Making them was her great delight. She’d been looking forward to making a wreath for such a love match as the lord of the manor’s daughter and the blacksmith’s apprentice; it tickled her sentimental soul.
The little man made of moonshine played the violin, and the lord of the manor’s daughter felt her foot tap, and with her toe tapping, she couldn’t help looking across the room at the blacksmith’s apprentice, who was standing by the bar, a mug in his hand, looking back at her. When he saw her looking he couldn’t help smiling, and once he smiled, she smiled, and before you knew it, they were dancing. The old woman who had never married smiled wistfully to see them, and the lonely widower who had invited the little man in looked at her smiling and wondered. He knew he would never forget his wife, but that didn’t mean he could never take another. He saw that smile and remembered when he and the old woman were young. He had never taken much notice of her before, but now he thought that maybe they could be friends.
All this time nobody had been taking much notice of the moonshine man, though they noticed his music well enough. But now a girl came in through the back door, dressed all in grey. She had lived alone for five years, since her parents died of the fever. She was twenty-two years old and kept three white cows. Nobody took much notice of her. She made cheese from her cows, and people said yes, the girl who makes cheese, as if that was all there was to her. She was plain and lonely in her solitary life, but she couldn’t see how to change it, for she didn’t have the trick of making friends. She always saw too much, and said what she saw. She came in, bringing cheese to the inn for their ploughman’s lunches, and she stopped at the bar, holding the cheese in her bag, looking across the room at the violinist. Her eyes met his, and as she saw him, he saw her. She began to walk across the room through the dancers, coming toward him.
Just as she had reached him and was opening her mouth to speak, the door slammed back and in walked the couple who had been quarrelling in the lane, their quarrel all made up and their arms around each other’s waists. The moonshine man stopped playing as soon as he saw them, and his face, which had been so merry, became grave. The inn fell quiet, and those who had been dancing were still.
“Oh,” said the girl, “here’s the man I made out of two rhymes and a handful of moonshine! It was so irresponsible of me to let him go wandering off into the world! Who knows what might have come of it? But never mind, no harm done.” Before anyone could say a word, she reached toward him, whipped out the two rhymes, then rubbed her hands to dust off the moonshine, which vanished immediately in the firelight and lamplight of the bright inn parlour.

2

It was at just that time of twilight when the last of the rose has faded into the west, and the amethyst of the sky, which was so luminous, is beginning to ravel away into night and let the first stars rub through. The hares were running along the bank of the stream, and the great owl, the one they call the white shadow, swept silently by above them. In the latticework of branches at the edge of the forest, buds were beginning to show. It was the end of an early spring day, and the pedlar pulled his coat close around him as he walked over the low arch of the bridge where the road crossed the stream, swollen and rapid with the weight of melted snow.
He was glad to see the shapes of roof- gables ahead of him instead of more forest stretching out. He had spent two cold nights recently, wrapped in his blankets, and he looked forward to warmth and fire and human comfort. Best of all, he looked forward to plying his trade on the simple villagers, selling his wares and spinning his stories. When he saw the inn sign swinging above one of the doors, he grinned to himself in pure delight. He pushed the door open and blinked a little as he stepped inside. There was firelight and lamplight and the sound of merry voices. One diamond-paned window stood ajar to let out the smoke of fire and pipes, but the room was warm with the warmth of good fellowship. The pedlar went up to the bar and ordered himself a tankard of ale. He took a long draft and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“That’s the best ale I’ve had since I was in the Golden City,” he said.
“That’s high praise if you like,” the innkeeper said. “Hear this, friends, this stranger says my ale is the best he’s tasted since the Golden City. Is that your home, traveller?”
The pedlar looked around to see that the most part of the customers of the busy inn were paying attention to him now, and not to each other. There were a pair of lovers in the corner who were staring into each other’s eyes, and an old man with a dog who seemed to be in a world of his own, and a girl in grey who was waiting impatiently for the innkeeper’s attention, but all the other eyes in the place were fixed on the pedlar.
“I don’t have a home,” he said, casually. “I’m a pedlar, and my calling gives me a home wherever I go. I roam the world, buying the best and most curious and useful things I can find, then selling them to those elsewhere who are not fortunate enough to travel and take their choice of the world’s goods. I have been to the Golden City, and along the Silver Coast; I’ve been in the east where the dragons are; I’ve been north to the ice; I’ve come lately through the very heart of the Great Forest; and I’m heading south where I’ve never been, to the lands of Eversun.”
At this, a little ripple of delight ran through the listening villagers, and that moment was worth more than wealth to the pedlar, worth more than the pleasure of selling for gold what he had bought for silver. His words were ever truths shot through with sparkling lies, but his joy in their effect was as real as hot crusty bread on a cold morning.
“Can we see what you have?” a woman asked shyly.
The pedlar feigned reluctance. “I wasn’t intending to sell anything here,” he said. “My wares are for the lands of Eversun; I want to arrive there with good things to sell them, to give me enough coin to buy their specialities. I’m not expecting much chance to replenish my stock between here and there.” The woman’s face fell. “But since you look so sad, my dear, and since the beer here is so good and the faces so friendly, I’ll open my pack if mine host here will throw in a bed for the night.”
The landlord didn’t look half as friendly now, in fact he was frowning, but the clamour among the customers was so great that he nodded reluctantly. “You can sleep in the corner of the taproom, by the fire,” he said, grudgingly.
At that a cheer went up from the crowd, and the pedlar took his pack off his back and began to unfold it on a table, rapidly cleared of tankards and goblets by their owners. The outside of the pack was faded by the sun to the hue of twilight, but the inside was a rich purple that made the people gasp.
Now some of the pedlar’s goods were those any pedlar would carry—ribbons, laces, yarn in different colours, packets of salt, nutmegs, packets of spices, scents in vials, combs, mirrors and little knives. He had none of the heavier, clattering goods, no pans or pots or pails that would weigh him down or cause him to need a packhorse to carry the burden. These ordinary goods he displayed with a flourish. “This lace,” he said, “you can see at a glance how fine it is. That is because it is woven by the veiled men of the Silver Coast, whose hands can do such delicate work because they never step out into the sun. See, there is a pattern of peonies, which are the delight of the coastal people, and here, a pattern of sea waves.”
When those who wanted lace had bought lace, he held up in each hand sachets of salt and pepper. “This salt, too, comes from the Silver Coast, and is in such large clear crystals because of a secret the women of that coast learned from the mermaids of making it dry so. The pepper comes from the Golden City, where it grows on trees and is dried on the flat rooftops so that all the streets of the city have the spicy smell of drying peppercorns.”
“Does it never rain?” asked an old woman, taking out her coin to pay twice what the pepper would have been worth, except that it would spice her food with such a savour of story.
“In the Golden City, it rains only once every seven years,” the pedlar said solemnly. “It is a great occasion, a great festival. Everyone runs into the streets and dances through the puddles. The children love it, as you can imagine, and splash as hard as they can. There are special songs, and the great gongs are rung in the temples. The pepper trees burst into huge flowers of red and gold, and the priests make a dye out of them which colours these ribbons. It is an expensive dye, of course, because the flowers bloom so rarely. They say it makes the wearers lucky, and that the dye doesn’t fade with washing, but I can’t promise anything but what you can see for yourselves, which is how good a colour it makes.” He lifted handfuls of red and yellow and orange ribbons in demonstration, which were hastily snapped up by the girls, who all crowded around.
The whole company was clustered around the pedlar now, even the lovers, but the landlord was not displeased. Every so often, when he grew hoarse, or claimed he did, the pedlar would  put down his perfumes or lengths of yarn and say it was time for them all to drink together, and there would be a rush for the bar. The landlord had already sold more ale and wine than on an ordinary night, and if the pedlar was having his drinks bought for him, what of it? The landlord had bought some spices for his winter wines, and a silver sieve for straining his hops. He no longer grudged the pedlar his corner by the fire.
The pedlar went on now to his more unusual items. He showed them dragon scales, very highly polished on the inside, like mirrors, and rough on the outside. He asked a very high price for them. “These are highly prized in the cities of Eversun for their rarity, and the young ladies there believe, though I can’t swear it is the truth, that looking at your face in such a mirror makes it grow more beautiful.” Only a few of the village maidens could afford the price he asked, but they bought eagerly.
The grey girl had been standing among the others for some time, but she had bought nothing. The pedlar had noticed her particularly, because she had not paid attention to him at first, and when she had come to watch, he had smiled inwardly. As the display went on and she stood silent, smiling to herself aside from time to time, he grew aware of her again, and wanted to bring her to put her hand into her pocket and buy. He had thought the ribbons might tempt her, or then again the dragon scales, or the comb made from the ivory of heart trees, but though he had sold to almost everyone present, she had made no move.
Now he turned to her. “Here is something you will like,” he said, “I do not mean to sell this here, but I thought it might interest you to look at it, for it is your colour.” He handed her a little grey bird, small enough to fit into the palm of the hand, carved very realistically so you could feel each feather.
The grey girl turned it over in her hands and smiled, then handed it back. “I do not need a carven bird,” she said.
“Why, no more does anyone else, but I see it fooled your eye, and even your hand. This bird, friends, is not carved. It comes from the Great North, from the lands of ice, and the bird flew too far into the cold and fell to the ground senseless. If you hold it to your lips and breathe, it will sing the song it sang in life, and they say in the north that sometimes such a bird will warm again and fly, but I have never seen it happen.” He put the bird’s tail to his lips and blew gently, and a trill rang out, for the bird was cleverly carved into a whistle. They were a commonplace of the Silver Coast, where every fishergirl had such a bird-whistle, but nobody in the village had ever seen one before.
The grey girl raised her eyebrows. “You say that was a living bird of the Great North that froze and turned to wood?”
“It has the feel of wood, but it is not wood,” the pedlar insisted.
“Let me hold it a moment again,” she asked. The pedlar handed it over. The grey girl held it out on the palm of her hand where everyone could see it. “No, it is wood,” she said, very definitely. “But it’s a pretty enough lie to make true.” She folded her fingers over the bird and blew over it. Then she unfolded her fingers, and the bird was there, to all appearances the same as before.
The pedlar drew breath to speak, but before he could, the carved bird ruffled its feathers, trilled, took one step from the girl’s hand onto her grey sleeve, then took wing, flew twice around over the heads of all the company, and disappeared through the open crack of the window.
3

As the leaves were turning bronze and gold and copper, the king came into the forest to hunt. One morning he set off to follow a white hart. They say such beasts are magical and cannot be caught, so the king was eager. Nevertheless, as often happens to such parties, they were led on through the trees with glimpses of the beast and wild rides in pursuit until the setting sun found them too far from their hunting lodge to return that night. This was no great hardship, for while the king was young and impetuous and had a curling black beard, he had many counsellors whose beards were long and white and combed smooth. Most of them had, to the king’s secret relief, been left behind in the palace, but he had brought along one such counsellor, who was believed to be indispensable. This counsellor had thought to order the king’s silken pavilions brought on the hunt, along with plenty of provisions. When the master of the hunt discovered this cheering news, he rode forward through the company, which had halted in a little glade, and brought it to the king, who laughed and complimented his counsellor.
“Thanks to you,” he said, “the worst we have to fear is a cold night under canvas! What an adventure! How glad I am that I came out hunting, and how sorry I feel for those of the court who stayed behind in the Golden City with nothing to stir their blood.” For the king was a young man, and he was bored by the weighty affairs of state.
The indispensable counsellor inclined his head modestly. “I was but taking thought for your majesty’s comfort,” he said.
Before he or the king could say more, the king’s bard, who was looking off through the trees, caught sight of a gleam of light far off among them. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
The company all turned to look, with much champing of bits but not many stamped hooves, for the horses were tired at the end of such a day. “It is a light, and that means there must be habitation,” the king said, with a little less confidence than he might have said it in any other part of the kingdom. The Great Forest had a certain reputation for unchanciness.
“I don’t know of any habitation in this direction,” said the master of the hunt, squinting at the light.
“It will be some rude peasant dwelling, rat ridden and flea infested, far less comfortable than your own pavilions,” the counsellor said, stroking his fine white beard. “Let us set them up here and pay no attention to it.”
“Why, where’s your spirit of adventure?” the bard asked the counsellor. The king smiled, for the bard’s question was much after his own heart.
The king raised his voice. “We will ride on to discover what that gleam of light might be.” In a lower tone, as the company prepared to ride off, he added to the counsellor, “Even if you are right, and no doubt you are, at the very least we will be able to borrow fire from them, which will make our camp less cold.”
“Very wise, your majesty,” the counsellor said.
They rode off through the twilight forest. They were a fine company, all dressed for hunting, not for court, but in silks and satins and velvets and rare furs, with enough gold and silver about them and their horses to show that they were no ordinary hunters. The ladies among them rode astride, like the men, and all of them, men and women, were beautiful, for the king was young and as yet unmarried and would have nobody about him who did not please his eye. Their horses were fine beasts, with arching necks and smooth coats, though too tired now to make the show they had made when they had ridden out that morning. The last rays of the sun had gilded them in the clearing, touching the golden circlet the king wore about his dark unruly locks; now they went forward into deepening night. The sky above them was violet, and a crescent moon shone silver like a sword blade. The first stars were beginning to pierce the sky when they splashed across a brook and saw a little village.
“What place is this?” the king asked the master of the hunt.
“I don’t know, sire. Unless we have come sadly astray it isn’t marked on my map,” the master of the hunt said.
“We must have come astray then,” the king said, laughing. “I don’t think the worse of you for it, for we were following a hart through the forest, and though we didn’t kill it, I can’t think when I had a better day’s sport. But look, man, this is a stone-built village with a mill and a blacksmith’s forge, and an inn. This is a snug little manor. A road runs through it. Why, it must pay quite five pounds of gold in taxes.”
The counsellor smiled to himself, for he had been the king’s tutor when he was a prince, and was glad to see he remembered the detail of such matters.
The master of the hunt shook his head. “I am sure your majesty is right, but I can’t find it on my map.”
“Let us go on and investigate,” the bard said.
It had been the red gleam of the forge they had seen from far off, but it was the lamplight spilling out of the windows of the inn that the bard waved toward.
“Such a place will not hold all of us,” the king said. “Have the tents set up for us to sleep, but let us see if we can get a hot supper from this place, whatever it is.”
“A hot supper and some country ale,” the bard said.
“There are three white cows in the water meadow beside the stream,” the master of the hunt pointed out. “The country cheese in these parts is said to be very good.”
“If you knew what parts these were, no doubt my counsellor could tell us all about their cheeses,” the king said.
They dismounted and left the horses to the care of those who were to set up the tents. The four of them strode into the village to investigate. The bard brought his little harp, the counsellor brought his purse, the master of the hunt brought a shortsword on his belt, but the king brought nothing.
The inn was warm and friendly and seemed to contain the whole population of the village. Those who were not there came in as soon as the news came to them of the king’s arrival. The counsellor negotiated with the innkeeper and soon arranged that food and drink could be provided for the whole company, and beds for the king and the ladies, if the ladies did not mind crowding in together. The master of the hunt pronounced the ale excellent, and the villagers began to beg the bard to play. The rest of the company, having set up the tents and rubbed down the horses, began to trickle into the inn, and the place became very full.
The king wandered around the inn, looking at everything. He examined the row of strange objects that sat on the mantelpiece, he peered out through the diamond-paned windows, he picked up the scuttle beside the fire and ran his hand along the wood of the chair backs, worn smooth by countless customers. The villagers felt a little shy of him, with his crown and his curling black beard, and did not dare to strike up conversation. For his own part he felt restless and was not sure why. He felt as if something was about to happen. Until the bard started to play, he thought he was waiting for music, and until he was served a plate of cold pork and hot cabbage he thought he was waiting for his dinner, but neither of these things satisfied him. Neither the villagers nor his own company delighted him. The villagers seemed simple, humble, rustic; their homespun clothes and country accents grated on him. In contrast, the gorgeous raiment and noble tones of his company, which were well enough in the palace or even his hunting lodge, seemed here overrefined to the point of decadence.
At length the door at the back opened and a girl came in, clad all in grey and carrying a basket. The master of the hunt had called for cheese, and she was the girl who kept the cows and made the cheese. She was plain almost to severity, with her hair drawn back from her face, but she was young and dignified, and when the king saw her he knew that she was what he had been waiting for, not just that night but for a long time. He had been picking at his dinner, but he stood when he saw her. There was a little circle of quiet around the corner where he sat, for his own people had seen that he did not want conversation. The girl glanced at him and nodded, as if to tell him to wait, and went with her basket to the innkeeper and began to negotiate a price for her cheese. The king sat down and waited meekly.
When she had disposed of her cheeses, the girl in grey picked her way through the room and sat down opposite the king. “I have been waiting for you all my life. I will marry you and make you my queen,” he said. He had been thinking all the time she was at the bar what he would say when she came up to him, and getting the words right in his mind. For the first time he was glad he was king, that he was young and handsome, that he had so much to offer her.
“Oh, I know that story,” she said. She took his ale tankard and breathed on it, and passed it back to him. He looked into it and saw the two of them tiny and distant, in the palace, quarrelling. “You’d pile me with jewels and I’d wither in that palace. You’d want me to be something I’m not. I’m no queen. I’m no beauty, no diplomat. I speak too bluntly. You’d grow tired of me and want a proper queen. I’d go into a decline and die after I had a daughter, and you’d marry again and give her a stepmother who’d persecute her.”
“But I have loved you since I first saw you,” the king insisted, although her words and the vision had shaken him. He took a deep draft of the ale to drive them away.
“Love? Well now. You feel what you feel, and I feel what I feel, but that doesn’t mean you have to fit us into a story and wreck both our lives.”
“Then you . . .” the king hesitated. “I know that story. You’re the goddess Sovranty, whom the king meets disguised in a village, who spends one night with him and confirms his sacred kingship.”
She laughed. “You still don’t see me. I’m no goddess. I know that story though. We’d have our one night of passion, which would confirm you in your crown, and you’d go back to your palace, and nine months later I’d have a baby boy. Twenty years after that he’d come questing for the father he never had.” She took up a twist of straw that was on the table and set it walking. The king saw the shape of a hero hidden among the people, then the straw touched his hand and fell back to the table in separate strands.
“Tell me who you are,” the king said.
“I’m the girl who keeps the cows and makes the cheeses,” she said. “I’ve lived in this village all my life, and in this village we don’t have stories, not real stories, just things that come to us out of the twilight now and then. My parents died five years ago when the fever came, and since then I’ve lived alone. I’m plain, and plainspoken. I don’t have many friends. I always see too much, and say what I see.”
“And you wear grey, always,” the king said, looking at her.
She met his eyes. “Yes, I do, I wear grey always, but how did you know?”
“When you’re a king, it’s hard to get away from being part of a story,” he said. “Those stories you mentioned aren’t about us. They’re about a king and a village girl and a next generation of stories. I’d like to make a new story that was about you and me, the people we really are, getting to know each other.” He put out his hand to her.
“Oh, that’s hard,” she said, ignoring his hand. “That’s very hard. Would I have to give up being a silver salmon leaping in the stream at twilight?”
“Not if that’s who you are,” he said, his green eyes steady on hers.
“Would I have to stop being a grey cat slipping through the dusky shadows, seeing what’s to be seen?”
“Not if that’s who you are,” he said, unwavering.
“Would I have to stop being a grey girl who lives alone and makes the cheeses, who walks along the edges of stories but never steps into them?”
“Not if that’s who you are,” said the king. “But I’m asking you to step into a new story, a story that’s never been before, to shape it with me.”
“Oh, that’s hard,” she said, but she put her hand on the king’s hand where it lay on the rough wooden table. “You’ve no sons, have you?”
“No sons, but I have two younger brothers,” he said, exhilaration sweeping through him.
She looked around the room. “Your fine bard is singing a song, and your master of the hunt is eating cheese. Your counsellor is taking counsel with the innkeeper, and no doubt hearing all about the affairs of the village. Your lords and ladies are drinking and eating and patronising the villagers. If you really want to give up being a king and step into a new story with me, now is the time.”
“What do I have to do?” he asked, very quietly, then she pulled his hand and for a moment he felt himself falling.
It was a little while before anyone noticed he had gone, and by then nobody remembered seeing the two cats slipping away between the tables, one grey and one a long-haired black with big green eyes.