There is a woman who sits high on the white and gray cliff-side overlooking the grasslands. She sits there playing a flute of green sard from the dawn to when the sun is high in the sky, and then she vanishes back into the shadows of the hills. The caravans - our caravans - that pass to and fro on the wide, empty road, have learned to never approach her, for she rises and turns and flees back into the goat paths in the rock and stone on bare, dirty feet. Our wise men - and wise women, like my Granmere, tell us to stay well away from her, for though she does no harm, she has the seeming of a madwoman and the feral angles of a starved deer.
Such women, the people of my wagon train whisper, may as well be a demon of the wind, a cursed bride who slew her own husband, a girl driven mad by the death of her tribe, a bad luck token who was born on a blue moon. She is a girl who runs with the wild beasts of the grasslands, the ones who flee when we come down through the pass, and at night she lies down with them as if she were a beast herself.
Here is the story my father told me in the dark of night beside our caravan fire, long after we passed the woman's perching-place:
"There used to be a village here, many years ago, a small watering hole with a shrine, a few holy men - of their kind, not ours - and a taverna where there was a dancing girl, a slave bought up from the Yellow Caravans you see further to the south of us."
"There's good money in dancing girls, both for the village and the girls, and they tend often as not to buy themselves free, if their masters aren't too cruel. Like as not they marry themselves off to a local or to one of us, sometimes, if they've hopes of seeing home again. Sometimes, they even sell themselves back to the caravans, writing down contracts and taking up bonds to go far from home."
"This girl was not a contract girl, but she was stolen from a far land, from a temple where she was an acolyte to their Goddess of Snakes or Saint of Scales or somesuch. The Yellow Caravans warned well about her, but, well. Easy to forget when a woman's shaking her charms in your face. Easy to forget that women can lie behind a smile far better than any of us menfolk."
"She slipped a ball of cinnabar into their water, bit by bit, they say, and when they went mad and burnt the village to the ground, she took to the hills to live, for, being far from home, how was she to retrace her steps back along the road of the caravans to her Goddess?"
"And that is why the Yellow Caravans come this way no more."
The old aunts of the wagon train said it was just nonsense when I came and asked, and then put me to laundry the next day. "Some slattern of a hill tribe." they said. "You know how the raiders are in the passes, why we have our dogs and our crossbows and the heavy scaling on the eaves of the children's wagons? Like as not, she went mad like many of them do, from the wind and the thin air, and she's living up there like some godsforsaken hermit.
"Expect they take care of their own. Mind you don't drop the bandages, boil those right into the kettle with the herbs. Don't pinch your nose like that, boy, it's good for what ails you!"
Old Jenna, my Granmere, she told me something different though, when she was in her dotage over the brandy and milk the aunts had me bring her.
"Well, boy, remember the far eastern folk who say there's a spirit in everything? They're fair right! Why do you think I spit at the foot of passes, eh? Pleases the stone there to avoid storms. And why do I pour out a bit of drink on the ground? Safe passage and good luck! And why do I bless the wagons with expensive oil when we could sell it, what with your father whining and carrying on? Best bless the beasts that protect us from the raiders and the weather!"
"Everything's got spirits, and sometimes, they're smarter and stronger, and they take form like us, walk on two legs. But for that they're spirits, and they've got their own rules, just like people got two legs and got laws and rules. I figure she's some kind of bird, like a mountain bird, those ones that sing in spring, and each dawn she gets her feet all full of toes and her body all full of flesh, and she goes up there and plays her flute."
"Why, boy? Do I look like a bird spirit to understand why that spirit's up there? Just hush and enjoy the music when you hear it, tain't a natural thing anyhow. Bring Old Jenna more of her draught, eh? That's a boy!"
Yellow Caravans don't know anything about her but they call her bad luck. "Haven't sold dancing girls in decades!" they laughed when I asked about my father's tale. "But she's been up there centuries, going on. You just don't go past there. Surprised you still do!"
"Truth was, there was a ruined village." one of their grandmother's allowed to me, once, when I snuck into her wagon to deliver one of Old Jenna's package. "But that was raiders that burnt that down, and they struck the women and children in chains, killed the men. Raiders, pfeh! You know how they are, they'd do the same to us if we could. Thank your stars you're a road boy, a caravan boy, and not a sitting lump like villagers or cityfolk."
"The girl? Well, if there'd been a girl they'd have raped and married or raped and sold her. They do that, you know. Be glad you were born a boy!"
Well, I grew and I took on muscle, and I got closer to being a man. Each year we'd pass that way, and the Blue Caravans prospered on and on, and each morning we'd pass and that flute would be sounding out like a mournful bird. Us boys, we'd joke about going and taking the girl down for a wife, or what would be crawling under those robes over skin and bones.
I'm my Granmere's son, and I guess I didn't find the idea of her all grubby and rag-covered to be too bad. Anyway, the tales we'd be told over the fire were all white-skinned spirits with huge eyes and long hair and filmy veils, and I couldn't see her none too clearly, could I? And the flute music was pretty enough. Soon enough, I began to dream.
A girl flies on the breeze over the cliffsides and hills, clad in filmy veils. I stand beneath, my hand outstretched with birdseed. She flies towards me, singing out the flute music she plays each morning. When she lands, she takes my gold-filled hand and kisses me, parting the veils until there is only skin against me and a soft feeling like the brushing of feathers against my face.
I went and saw my Granmere in her wagon, all withered and buried under wool and yak hides, and she peered at me. "Got my draught, boy?" she croaked.
"Just wine, Granmere Jenna." I admitted, and passed it to her, and then I told her my dream, and she laughed at me, her eyes snapping bright in her yellow, trail-traced face and her few teeth wagging at me from inside her jaw.
"Just like a boy!" she crowed. "Just like your father, all full with dancing girls. About time we found you a wife, boy, before you go running off after the breeze and trying to marry yourself off to it!"
She saw me sulking then, and crowed again. "Go take some birdseed, then, and find your flute girl." I turned to stomp off, and she grabbed my wrist, then, her hand all sinew and skin and claws, like the iron weight of a shackle, squeezing the bones together. Everyone forgets Old Jenna used to toss sheep up over her shoulders and lift the ends of wagons when she was young, and not from the help of spirits, either.
"Birdseed." she said, serious, her thin-lipped mouth straight under all her folds of aged skin. "We'll be stopping there over the night, your father said. Take a hand of seed from the stores and go on up with a lantern and see if you can't find the girl. If you do, you'd best be marrying her."
She cackled at me then, and took a swig of the draught, smacking her lips as I went hurrying off.
I took my seed, and I took my lantern, and I crept away feeling like a fool as I looked for the goat paths up the ridgeline. But as the dawn crept on in streams of pink and gold above, I saw a form waiting for me on the ridgeline, dressed in rags... or was it veils? The wind tossed them about her form, and it was fair and lovely, stained by the colors of the dawn sky.
I lifted my seed-filled hand, and like a dream, she drifted down to me, and I felt the wind like feathers against my face as she clasped my other hand with her own. The flute of stone pressed smooth and chill into my palm, and she smiled and spoke, her lips unmoving.
"Many years ago, I came to this place on a caravan of red and white, and I fell in love with a young man who rode his horse over the passes, a wild raider in brown with snapping black eyes. My sisters hid us under veils of black that we could be together in the night, in the shadows of the mountain pass, in the places between the grasses where there are hollows in which to sleep."
"When my Granfer found out, he cursed me and cast me from the wagon train, for the raiders are as wild beasts to us. When he caught sight of my lover, he snapped his fingers and cried out, and my lover became a wild beast that chased me across the plains to gore me. My sisters became the wild birds above that sing out, cast out just as I am."
"I took shelter with the spirits of the winds and bribed them with perfume and flowers, and they gave me this place here, where I can see my love, though he rages and does not know me. They gave my sisters to the breeze, and nests and houses where they might live and sleep and dream to wait for their own loves."
"But it has been many years, and even the spirits of the winds cannot hold me here forever, and even my Granfer, as bitter and as willful as he was, cannot hold my love into the form of a beast forever."
I heard the lowing of the great wild beasts below, then, as she led me to the edge of the cliff and bade me to seat myself, her flute still clasped in my hand. Below a great beast, grizzled by age and worn with wounds as if from a hunter, sank to its knees: it became a young man, as I was, with my eyes, even, fierce and proud: and then it became skin, and then it became bones and dust, blowing away in the valley breeze.
The girl smiled and stepped back, clad in veils - clad in rags - and she burst into flowers all at once, and birds, and backed by the crimson and yellow of the sun, she flew away into the same breeze, petals and feathers mixing with the dust of the raider man. As I watched, four white birds, their wings as wide as woman's arms, and as soft, spread their wings, fluttering out from the dark cracks in the cliff stone to rise on the wind and vanish.
So now I sit with my lantern, my legs kicking out over the edge of the cliff, and the wind came and whispered in my ear, and a great white bird with dark, wet eyes watches me from a rock.
As each day, at dawn, I lift the flute to my lips.
As each day, at dawn, I stand in my veils (in my rags), and each day I walk the goat paths up into the places where the wind spirits walk.
And each day, my wife flies overhead, clad in veils, clad in feathers, and meets me at the door to our house of stone, our house of skins, with a fish in her hands and a skin of brandy and milk in the other. We hang the flute on the wall together, and we cook our meal, and we lay ourselves down in feathers and silks and hides, warm and safe inside while the wind sings loud and sweet each night in the mountains and the great beasts of the plains call out low and content from the plains below.