Merisande d’Ivry perched on the felled tree that she and her father, Rives, were slowly reducing to firewood, running her ax blade over a whetstone. Her halfwit brother, Jan, squatted beside a stream, apparently hoping that the sleeping frogs would pop their heads out of the mud to greet him. You’re not spring, she thought.
Rives set down his ax and groaned, stretching his arms behind his back. He froze that way for a moment and then turned to Mer with a gleam in his eyes. Another riddle, she guessed, and leaned forward in anticipation.
The riddle game had become synonymous with gathering firewood. Mer could not recall who had asked the first riddle or how many years had passed since she and Rives began playing the game. All she knew was that she could not chop wood without riddles.
The hungry dog howls, he said,
for a crust of bread. His cry goes unheard. It’s far overhead.
He picked up his ax and swung.
How could a dog’s cry be overhead? She ran her hand over the rough bark, feeling the vibration of the ax in the wood. Oh. She drew her tiny bell from her dress pocket and shook it. Rives left the ax in the wood and stepped closer to catch her whispered answer. Since she had lost her voice, that was all she could do.
The moon, she said.
He snorted, pushing damp strands of dusty blond hair off his forehead.
Rives was a tall, wiry man with heavy-lidded blue eyes and a mouth unaccustomed to smiling. Mer had inherited his height and slender build; she owed the rest to her mother, who had died nearly two decades earlier while giving birth to Jan. Rives, disinherited for marrying the raven-haired farm girl instead of some lord’s daughter, had barely settled into his modest life when he found himself without a wife, alone with two babies and only an acre of stony soil from which to eke out a living.
It was too easy, Rives said.
I can’t think when I’m this tired.
Let me chop for a while, she offered.
It’s not your turn.
She shrugged, flicked a watchful eye at Jan, and slipped the silver bell back into her pocket. It had been a gift from her uncle’s wife, Lisette. Mer smiled as she recalled her last visit to Lord Barret d’Ivry’s manor. Lisette had been shocked to silence when Mer, wanting to snag Rives’s attention during an elaborate meal, tapped her knife against a silver plate. The bell arrived by messenger a week later.
Jan loved the bell, though his thick fingers could not find a way to make it work. One ring meant
No, and three meant
Come here. Mer could approach Rives and whisper those words to him, but it was easier simply to ring the bell, especially if she was occupied in a task that required constant attention.
Autumn leaves rustled in the branches overhead. Mer picked a leaf out of her braid and leaned her face into the sun.
Life without a voice was not as terrible as she had thought it would be. Harder to bear was the memory of how she had lost it.
Mer still dreamed of Thorsault. Try as she might, she could not banish her memories of the fae city, though it lay on the other side of the island, buried under the lively roots of the Cursed Wood. The knight who had suffered with her in that vile placeher old acquaintance, Sir Avryhad advised her to write her dreams down. Dreams are more about feelings than happenings, he had written. They lose power when described.
Write them down she did, then on a whim, she had tucked them into one of her short replies to his almost daily letters. A few days later, a stack of his own dreams arrived, and they were not a pleasant read. But they soothed her when she lay awake at night, struggling to cast images from her mind. She knew which were his worst by the way he wrote them: the lines were thick and heavily blotted, and he left grace-marks of ink between the words. Funny, she had once believed Sir Avry to be emotionless, cold, and calculating, but his writing revealed just the opposite
Are you watching Jan?
Mer’s gaze flashed to the stream. Groaning, she darted to the edge and coaxed her brother out of the knee-deep water. He did not seem to feel the cold. She pulled off his boots and turned them upside down over a patch of sun-warmed earth.
What were you doing? she rasped near his ear, not expecting an answer.
Jan drew a wet, folded leaf out of his pocket.
Mmm. ‘Fa’ usually meant ‘father,’ but it could also mean ‘fall.’ She wondered which it was.
Rives lowered his ax, leaned toward her, and riddled,
You must keep it after giving it.
Your word? she guessed.
A red drum sounds without being hit and grows silent when touched. What is it?
Mer led Jan to a rock where he could sit in the sun. Grows silent when touched.
She paced as her father chopped through the felled tree, split the log slab into four chunks, and tossed them onto his hand cart. Officially, those logs were not his. Since the crown owned the forest, it was illegal to harvest trees from it. But Rives had done exactly that for two decades.
Do you give up? he asked.
Sighing, she fetched her ax and slipped on her gloves. A wrong answer meant the loser worked.
A heart, he said.
Mer tossed the whetstone at him. He caught it in a gloved hand and pressed it to his chest in parody. Heart. Mer could not help but smile.
Her ax clove the wood, slicing through layers of bark to enter the fibrous flesh. The initial burn in her arms faded to numbness as she found her pace and let herself flow into the repetitive motion of the swinging blade.
Drink, a voice whispered from the past. Mer winced, blinked away sweat, and swung. Milk of the earth.
A memory of pain seared across her throat. She swallowed convulsively and slammed her ax into the wood.
Bury deep, pile on stones, she riddled, my mind will always dig up those old bones.
Mer, that’s enough. Strong hands gripped her arms and held them steady, preventing her from swinging again.
But it’s my turn.
Let go. Now. Rives’s eyes were hard, his jaw firm.
Mer’s hand went limp, and her father tossed the ax onto the ground behind him. There was an awkward silence; even Jan was still, watching them with wide eyes.
Where were you? Rives demanded.
She shrugged and whispered,
Bury deep, pile on stones, my mind will always dig up those old bones.
She ran a trembling arm across her forehead.
Rives shook his head.
We’ve done enough today, he said, gathering up the axes. He passed her the empty picnic basket.
But it’s such a nice day, she protested.
And the cart is far from full.
Her father would not be dissuaded.
As evening fell, Mer was grateful that Rives had insisted on heading home early. Her arms ached as though someone had battered them with a mallet. She sought her bed early and slipped into a mire of dreams as elusive as fish in a pond.
She woke to the sound of shutters slamming open against the wall above her bed. Jan, who rarely stirred once asleep, moaned in his bed across the room. Mer got up, wincing at the chill wind, and felt for the iron catch that held the shutters in place.
It was not there. Instead, there were two empty holes where nails had once been. The catch for the deadbolt had been torn right out of the shutter. Mer fingered the holes thoughtfully. Nails must have been loose.
Mehh, Jan moaned.
Mer snatched a blanket off a chair and draped it over him.
It’s all right, Jan. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Just a gust of wind. Soon he quieted down and resumed snoring. Mer wrapped herself in a blanket and peered out the window to the shadowy line of trees, stroked by the eerie glow of dawn.
Then she froze, heart in her throat.
Something was out there.
A pale form crouched in the wood, only visible because it was lighter than the trees around it. The vestiges of night rendered it shapeless, incorporeal as mist. Mer squinted, afraid to move, afraid even to breathe.
Little by little, the forest brightened; the rising sun glimmered between the trunks, casting diagonal shadows over the field separating the cottage from the wood. Mer’s eyes crossed in tiredness. When they focused again, she realized that nothing was there, and nothing ever had been. The tree shadows formed an unbroken line over the ground, revealing no mysterious shape.
She had only imagined it.
With trembling hands, she felt around on the floor until she found the latch, then pushed the attached nails back into their holes and closed the shutters. The bolt slid through with a satisfying click.
Please let there be no more wind, she prayed as she returned to her bed and pushed her face into the pillow.
She lay curled up, shivering, trying to ward off the fear and emptiness that were never more than a breath away.
Those old bones.
Mer had told no one she had killed the fae who destroyed her voice. She held that memory close to her, like a seed swathed in layers of hardened flesh. No one could pry it open.
Her fingers clenched as she remembered his red blood, spilling into the pool of milky poison he had forced her to drink from; the bloodied knife, loose in her hand; the icy water inside the tunnel she had crawled through to escape; the desolation of being lost in a dark forest, without a voice. Without a hope.
She had stumbled on Avry in the Cursed Wood. The knight had held her while she wept soundlessly into his chest. She would never forget the solid warmth of his arms, the moment of utter calm she had felt as she lifted her face off his tear-soaked shoulder.
I should thank him, she thought.
But she knew she never would.
She sighed and rolled onto her back. Perhaps she should seek out the wood woman, barter something for valerian root. Her stash had long been exhausted.
Unable to sleep, she dressed quickly in the chill air, tiptoed down the hallway to the common room, and set about starting a fire in the hearth. Amid the snapping of twigs came the creak of floorboards as Rives walked about his bedroom, dressing. Moments later, he came out and squatted beside her, his knees cracking as they bent.
It’s a cold morning, he said.
He pursed his lips.
No, it’s just cold. Cold for early October.
She set a log on the fire and fanned it with the bellows.
The wind blew the bedroom shutters open this morning. Tore the catch right out of the wood.
Both nails gave way?
I pushed them back into their holes, but they won’t stay like that
The devil’s hairs, he muttered and marched down the hall to her bedroom. He returned moments later and pulled on his boots.
Mer fetched her own and followed him out the door.
The land between the cottage and the wood was bare and brown. Clumps of squash plants and the leafy tops of root vegetables appeared here and there like a sprinkle of tossed coins. The other crops had been withered by frost. A stone well stood to one side of the yard, encircled by vine and weeds that no one had thought to pull.
It hasn’t rained in a week, Rives complained as Mer knelt beside him.
If it had, we might have found some footprints.
Footprints… She eyed him with a frown.
Do you really think someone was out here?
He ran a hand over her shutters.
There is no mark on the wood. Did you hear anything? Footsteps, voices?
She shook her head.
All I heard was wind. She refused to tell him that she had imagined a pale shape in the trees.
His brows rose.
You heard wind?
Heard it. Felt it. It woke Jan, and I had to throw an extra blanket over him.
He slumped against the cottage wall.
That catch was well fastened. It hasn’t budged since I pounded it in two decades ago.
The nails might have been loose, Mer pointed out, shivering. She should have grabbed a coat.
They both turned at the sound of approaching hoofbeats.
That must be the messenger with your daily letter, Rives said.
They came around to the front yard and surprised the messenger, whose gloved hand was raised to knock on the door. Jacques was a short, thick-set man whose nose and chin constantly sought to touch one another.
Lord Rives, Lady Merisande, he greeted them, tilting his head in a show of respect for the meaningless titles they still held. He handed Mer the letter.
I’ll be at my usual place until noon. No other messages to deliver today, thanks be to God. With that he turned, threw himself on his dappled mare, and trotted off to Lord Gille d’Avrance’s estate, where his brother worked as a stable master.
Mer never made Jacques wait long. If she repliedand she usually didthe fee was paid by Sir Avry. Waiting incurred additional charges, which Jacques had hinted at once or twice when the weather was bad.
Rives held the door open and she went in, sighing with relief at the warmth that greeted her.
Later, they sat around the table eating smoked rabbit and mushrooms. Jan swayed with tiredness. He probably would have slept on his plate if it did not contain his breakfast. Mer held Avry’s letter under the table, surreptitiously leafing through the pages. There were always at least three, brimming with Avry’s small but elegant script. His thoughts were as effortlessly expressed as wind through an open window. They revealed a world foreign to her: life inside the keep and its weapons yard, the intricacies of sword play. Even the king was not exempt from Avry’s unembellished narrative.
And here and there, like a startling color that appeared in the warp of a weave, were hints that he never stopped thinking about her. She caught one as she read.
The armory received a gift from Faolin today. I am sure you have heard of that place, wedged between Ann and Lys. Their short swords are coveted, and they have gifted us ten. The box they arrived in is extraordinary, carved with animals and flowers, the wood so rich and dark that it reminded me of your hair.
She bit her lip, feeling a twinge of remorse. Try as she might, she could not manage to view Avry as more than a friend. That they had grown this close was surreal, a possibility she would have scoffed at half a year ago. She took a bite of rabbit and chewed over the problem.
After a time, she looked up to find her father watching her, and in his eyes lurked a conversation she desperately wanted to avoid.