The Echo of Hollow Hooves

by Rachel Friedman

“Aisling,” the dark voice said. It was frightening, and yet as familiar as a lullaby.

Aisling didn’t bother to move. This had happened a hundred times before, so she knew that she was dreaming. When she finally awoke in the gray dampness that preceded the sunrise, her limbs were as clamped as though they had been in restraints all night. This, too, was nothing new.

When she was a child, she had wondered about these dreams. Her mother, distracted by the demands of being the housewife in charge of more than her fair share of chores on their boggy farm, had once assured her that they were nothing. By the time that Aisling had wished for a second opinion, Jacob had gotten into his accident, and then almost no one paid attention to Aisling at all.

In that harsh land, people died young, although they might not die quickly. Jacob and Aisling’s parents were long gone, but Aisling, although almost perpetually bent from the work, still tried to grow crops in their fields, and Jacob still sat in his chair by the fire. The fall that had injured his spine had apparently left him fit for doing little else.

It was a hard, solitary life, which was subject to only two interruptions, although only one of them was welcomed. This was the pub, where countless generations of gaunt and cheerless hosts employed their children to hand over earthenware mugs of beer to every person in the village for a penny. The quality of the beer changed with each successive owner, but it was always eagerly sought after and quickly drunk. After all, nobody actually bought it for the taste. They wanted the warmth of it, the way it could lighten their spirits, and for any pleasant hallucinations the alcohol might bring.

Sometimes, however, when the bar was almost pleasantly in swing, and some of the adults had just begun to try out tunes that they had never properly known, the sound of vast, hollow hoofbeats would fill the air, and then they would know that the other interruption had arrived.

It was bad luck to see the Wild Hunt. People often said that this was why they seemed to have bad luck all their lives, for the Wild Hunt was impossible to miss. Nobody had ever seen it clearly, but this might have been because few of them ever tried. The procession of ghostly horses and riders trailing the silent, leaping hounds was all that people were willing to identify, although sometimes people would get close enough to report a glimpse of fiery, rolling eyes and the drooling, gnashing mouths laden with needlelike teeth. It was hard to believe that such creatures existed, but they did.

Forget any local mutterings about the Devil or Divine punishment. Everyone knew that the floods, the fevers, the poor crops, and every other misery imaginable was all due to the witchcraft and general ill-wishing generated by the Wild Hunt. This belief was admittedly supported by the occasional phrases uttered by the Hunt that were overheard by luckless farmers. The remarks were always issued by the leader of the Hunt; none of the others uttered a sound, not even the animals. Perhaps they remained silent out of respect, or perhaps, some people said darkly, the Hunter had removed their tongues to prevent such interruptions.

#

Aisling seldom had the time to go to the pub, although she dutifully took Jacob there every evening and pushed him back in his rough wheeled chair just before she went to bed. She liked the idea of temporary obviation as much as everyone else, but her chore list was too long to allow her to indulge in such a minor luxury. It was possible that she resented this, but she never said so, and no one thought to ask her.

Perhaps it was because she had never managed to drink enough to ruin her looks, but Aisling was considered to be the prettiest woman in the village. With her rust-colored curls and mild hazel eyes, she was more striking than dainty, but in a drab, damp, village, this only made her seem more remarkable. This never seemed to cause any contention among the other ladies. If Aisling had given herself airs, there might possibly have been some trouble, but she surveyed the world with the same tired eyes and slumped shoulders as the other women. She blended in so well that the ladies seldom bothered to think of her in particular, except to think that her hair sometimes added a touch of much-needed color to the landscape.

Apparently not all of the men experienced the same exhausted indifference to Aisling as the women did, for one night, when Aisling was taking him home, Jacob excitedly told her that she had just become engaged. Her response, understandably, was to tell him that he was too drunk to know that such jokes were not humorous.

“I’m not joking,” Jacob said, insulted. “Malcolm- the pub owner’s eldest son- worked up the courage to ask tonight. He said that if you married him, his whole family agreed to take both of us in. I accepted on your behalf. It’s a chance for both of us to do better. They’re the best-off people in the village, you know, with a good weatherproof house and far less work to do than the rest of us. You’ll inherit the bar alongside Malcolm, and we’ll never have to worry about another bad harvest.”

Aisling stopped walking. “You didn’t ask me,” she said, her voice low and tight.

“I’m your closest male relative, it’s all proper. And besides, how could you not be pleased?”

There didn’t seem to be anything else to say about the matter.

#

The people in the vicinity seemed to have as pessimistic view of marriage as they had of everything else in life, but they did like weddings. Weddings came with the potential of a free spectacle, refreshments, and music, even if the bread was occasionally stale, the beer scarce, and the sole musician remarkably unmusical. For the wedding of the brewer’s eldest son, they expected the offering to be rather higher. By popular demand, the ceremony was to be held in the evening, when the chores would in theory be completed and everyone could come and enjoy themselves. The excitement was so great that they almost forgot the bride.

A few of the women did offer to help Aisling dress, which the bride seemed to think was an unexpected kindness. In actuality, however, there was very little to do. Aside from a wash in a hip-bath full of tepid water, Aisling just had to dress herself in her best clothing, a slightly frayed dress which still held a hint of its original green dye. One girl had managed to find a few rare wildflowers for Aisling’s bouquet, although the scraggly blooms somehow looked out of place with her attire. Her groom had not thought of buying her a new dress; perhaps he had believed that it would be improper to do so, or had lacked the time. Their engagement had lasted all of three weeks. It might even have been shorter had it not been for the fact that was the length of time it had taken them to brew the wedding beer.

Aisling walked to the ceremony alone. The priest, as everyone had expected, was already drunk when she arrived. But before he could begin, there came the sound of the dreaded hollow hooves.

Everyone froze, or almost everyone. Defying all that she had been taught, Aisling alone turned around and looked at the Wild Hunt. As if in response to her acknowledgement, the Hunter leaned down from his horse and stretched his hand out towards her. “Come,” he said. His dark, frightening voice only held a faint resemblance to a man’s, but Aisling brightened up as though she knew him. She stretched out her hand to grasp his. Malcolm only just managed to knock it away before she could touch him.

“Aisling,” Jacob cried out, “don’t be a fool; this is no time to suddenly run mad. This is your wedding day, the happiest day of our lives. And besides, everyone knows that the Hunter and his followers are evil.”

Aisling turned to look at him. Her eyes were still the same mild hazel that they had always been, but now they were flashing like stars. Her face was pale with rage. “Evil he may be,” she snapped, “but at least the Hunter had the decency to give me a choice once he had chosen me.” And with that parting shot, she stretched out her hand once more. Ghostly fingers reached out and gripped hers.

The party stood there in shock as the sound of the demonic horses’ hooves died away. No one ever saw Aisling again.



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