It was a bad year for fever.
Even out in the Boundary, Castelio knew it was a bad year. His parents were woodwards, practitioners of green lore. When the fever came with the rains, they would gather moss and bark in the misty glens and cross the river to minister to the villagers on the far bank. Sometimes they let Cas come along to help, but not this year.
It was a killing fever this year.
Burning fierce and unquenchable like spilled lamp oil. Those who lived were frail and trembling for weeks. Those who died were buried with an iron coin on their tongue and silver bells sewn to their sleeves.
Still, some came back.
Castelio heard his Da talking about it with Gui Harcourt when he arrived on his black charger. Gui was a Quietus, which was like a soldier except that instead of fighting the living, he banished the dead. Gui was tall and broad, with kind eyes and a mild voice. The two men sat at the trestle table under the old lightning-scarred oak where the family took all their meals now.
The homestead sat in a forested valley with the Forkings River on one side and the fog-cloaked Mizzly Mountains on the other. Boundary folk were considered queer. They lived in the shadow of the Greater Gates of the high passes, where the Ducissa’s border guards kept watch with pikes of iron and made sure nothing came through that didn’t belong in the living world. The Boundary had no noonday sun like the duchies of the west, nor was it always midnight like the east.
No, the Boundary was a middling place, forever at the edge of dusk. On a clear day, if all three moons were aloft, the light had a bright, silvery quality. Now, dark clouds mounded on the horizon, leaving a gloomy half-light. Cas knew he should fetch wood for supper, but he also knew the storm wouldn’t arrive for a while and wanted to know what tidings Gui had brought. So he took a bucket to the well and dropped it down, turning the winch slowly so he could listen without being too obvious.
The men spoke in low, troubled voices.
“. . . more than a dozen risen in Caria . . . reinforcements at the border . . . locked inside the houses for quarantine . . .”
Cas stared into the mouth of the well, ears pricked. It was nothing new, the dead returning. That’s why they needed men like Gui Harcourt. Why corpses were buried with coin to pay the Drowned Woman. Some folk were too poor to afford the charms, but that was a problem of the villages, not here.
The Boundary had a dangerous reputation, being next to the mountains, but Castelio had lived there all his life and never seen a single Low Dead, let alone—
He looked up and found Da staring at him. A strong, calloused hand beckoned. Cas drew up the bucket and walked over, wondering if he was in for a scolding for eavesdropping.
“How old are you now, lad?” Gui asked.
“Twelve,” he replied, meeting the man’s gray-blue eyes. “Almost thirteen.”
Castelio had known Gui since . . . always, really. The Quietus ranged up and down the Boundary, stopping at the Nerides farm several times a year. Cas held him in awe. He couldn’t imagine facing the risen dead.
Gui’s staff leaned between his knees. It was made of ancient, yellowed wood, like bone, with sigils carved along the length. A dozen small pouches hung from his belt, and a bow and quiver were propped against the oak.
“Let’s hear you whistle,” Gui said.
Cas wet his lips and mimicked the tune he’d heard Gui whistling when he rode up the lane.
“Well done. A strong, clear whistle is as good as chimes and bells. Sometimes better.” Gui cast a look at Da that Cas didn’t entirely understand. “Maybe you heard what I was saying to your father, but there’s been trouble across the river. More than usual.”
“I wasn’t trying to,” Cas said, cheeks pinking. “But aye, I heard.”
Gui’s gaze drifted to the youngest members of the Nerides family. Teo was seven, bare-chested and scrawny, with scratches on his arms from picking gooseberries. He perched on a stool, shelling peas, while four-year-old Filippa played with little people Cas had made from twists of straw. They both had Ma’s flaxen hair and freckles.
“Nothing close to here, mind,” Gui said. “But you’re near a man now, you should know.”
Cas nodded and looked at Da. “The risen can’t cross the river though, can they?”
“No,” Gui answered. “They can’t.”
And then the Quietus glanced at the farmhouse and Cas felt a trickle of ice. Ma was inside, upstairs abed, and he hadn’t been allowed to see her in more than a week. She was the reason they ate their meals under the oak instead of in the kitchen. Why all of them except Da were sleeping in the barn.
Cas knew she was locked inside their bedroom. The fever made its victims so restless they’d leave their beds and wander, which is why some called it the walking plague. Da said the fever was smart because if people moved around, they could pass the bad humors to others.
“Are you here to take us away?” Cas asked tightly.
Gui frowned. “No, lad. Why would I do that?”
A knot loosened in his chest. “Never mind. Are you staying for supper?”
Gui grinned. “Is that an invitation?”
They had fried duck eggs and bread toasted on long forks, and peas in sweet butter. The rain held off until dessert, which was apple tarts that Castelio had baked that afternoon from Ma’s recipe. Gui told them stories about the court at Aquitan that had Teo spellbound, but Cas kept looking up at Ma’s bedroom window and wishing she were well enough to come down. Lippa missed her, too. His little sister was clingier than usual, climbing into his lap while he was still eating. Da offered to take her, but Lippa didn’t want him, she wanted Castelio, so he held her warm, drowsy weight, her hair smelling like hay, until the drizzle began and he carried her into the barn.
Once Cas got her up the ladder into the loft, he left Teo watching her and went back down. The sheep were peaceful in their pen, snuggled together in wooly humps. Rain drummed on the roof as the two men stepped through the barn doors. Gui had donned his long oilskin coat. Da wore a broad-brimmed felt hat and carried his own hickory walking stick. Castelio looked most like him, slender and chestnut-haired, though Da had threads of white at his temples.
“I need to gather nettles and rowan,” Da said. “For the poultice. It’s got to be fresh.”
Cas lowered his voice. “How is she?”
“The same, but that’s a good sign. The seventh day is usually the worst. Then it breaks.”
He sounded sure. Cas counted back in his head. “And the seventh day was . . . yesterday?”
Da nodded. “Gui offered to come with me. Can you mind your brother and sister?”
Cas glanced up at the loft. “Sure.”
The Quietus stepped up. He held out a small glass vial stoppered with a bit of cork.
“Keep that with you, lad. Just in case. It’s Kaethe’s Tears.”
A nine-pointed star was tattooed on the webbing of Gui’s hand between thumb and forefinger. The sign of Kaethe, the Drowned Woman. Patron of the dead.
“Go on,” Gui said gently. “Take it.”
Cas regarded the vial, suddenly wary. But why . . . ?
His mind went blank for a moment, unwilling to finish the thought.
“Do as he says,” Da said quietly.
Cas took the vial. It felt cold against his palm.
“We’ll be back in an hour or two.” Da laid a hand on his shoulder, gave it a brief squeeze.
Cas watched them ride down the lane on Gui’s black charger, Da behind with a cloth satchel slung across his back. The trees bent and swayed, sending eddies of dry leaves whirling into the twilight. He gripped the vial in his fist. For the first time, it came home just how isolated their farm was. The closest neighbors were an hour’s brisk walk. An old couple whose children had grown up and moved across the river. Before she got sick, Ma would visit them every week—
Teo hung over the edge of the hayloft, peering down.
Cas slid his hand behind his back. “Nothing.”
“Don’t lie, I saw. Gui just gave you something.”
He sighed and showed him. “Kaethe’s Tears.”
His brother’s eyes widened. “Can I see?”
Cas felt suddenly angry. At Gui for thinking he’d need protection. At Da for allowing it. The dead couldn’t cross swift-running water. Couldn’t reach the farm. And they had iron horseshoes above all the doors, including the one leading into the barn. Cas had nailed them up himself.
A recklessness seized him. “You can keep it,” he said.
He tossed the vial into the air, a long, looping arc. Teo groped for it, almost had it, and then the vial slipped through his fingers. Time seemed to slow as Cas watched it fall back to earth and shatter on the warped floorboards.
“What did you do that for?” Teo demanded.
Heat flooded his cheeks. He grabbed a broom and whisked the glass into a pile, feeling stupid. “Just forget it.”
“What if Gui wants it back?”
“How do you know?”
“It was a gift. Now come down and clean your teeth.”
Cas ran through the rain to the well and fetched the bucket. They squatted at the open doors, rubbed salt on their teeth, rinsed and spat. As they walked back to the ladder, Teo paused next to the damp spot. “What’s Kaethe’s Tears again, Cas?”
Teo’s ginger brows wrinkled. “Must be more than that.”
“Well, I s’pose it is. It comes from the source of the Forkings River, way up north, and it’s blessed by a priest of Bel.”
The notch in his brother’s forehead deepened, as it did when he was trying to work something out. “But if it’s blessed by a priest of the sun god, why’s it called Kaethe’s Tears?”
Cas laughed and ruffled his hair. “I’ve no idea. You’ll have to ask Gui.”
He left the pile of glass in a dark corner, meaning to bury it in the woods the next day. If Lippa found it—and she would, of course she would—she’d cut herself. Besides which, he didn’t want Da to know what he’d done. Or Gui.
Cas stared at the damp patch below the ladder and wished he hadn’t acted so rashly. So childishly. It seemed an ill omen. An insult to the Drowned Woman.
“Let’s say prayers,” he told Teo when they were up in the hayloft.
He lit a lantern and hung it carefully on a hook. Fire was a much greater threat than the risen dead, especially in a barn. The light burnished Lippa’s hair to a red flame. Dark lashes fanned across her round, rosy cheeks. She’d burrowed into the nest of blankets, thumb stuck in her mouth. Cas gently shook her shoulder.
“Wake up, Lip.”
She made a soft noise but didn’t rouse.
Teo shot him a worried glance. Cas knew what he was thinking, but Lippa’s forehead felt cool when he touched it.
“No fever,” he said.
“I guess she’s just tired,” Teo said with relief.
For some reason, Castelio felt a twinge of unease at letting his sister skip the bedtime prayer. Ma said it was a special catechism of Boundary folk handed down by her grandparents and their grandparents, all the way back for hundreds of years. Cas had repeated it so many times, he’d stopped hearing the words. It was just what you did after cleaning teeth and before lights out.
But tonight was different. He listened to the wind muttering in the eaves, the rain pattering on the roof, the wet slap of branches through the half-open barn doors. The river was too far away to hear, but he fancied he could anyway — a ribbon of rushing whitewater that started up in the mountains and ran the length of the Boundary down to the Great Salt Pond.
Yes, between Lippa’s soft exhalations, he could hear the river now, and the creak of the ferry rope going taut, and the bump of the raft as it touched the shore. Hear the shambling footsteps of some fell thing as it staggered up the muddy bank . . .
Castelio grabbed his brother’s hand, too hard.
“Ow,” Teo protested.
“Sorry,” Cas mumbled, loosening his grip.
Stop playing the fool, he told himself sternly. Gui said you’re almost a man. It’s time you start acting like it.
He cleared his throat. “We’ll just say it without Lip.”
Teo nodded, swallowing, and Cas could see he felt it, too, the faint sense of something off. The boys squeezed their eyes shut, whispering the words together.
Bless us, Kaethe
Guide us through the thickets of night
Let our feet not lose the path
And at the last hour
When your cold hand beckons
Lend us courage to cross the stormless sea
Bless us, Kaethe
Seal gate and tomb against us
Let us not rise again
They pulled their clammy palms apart. Teo punched his wool-stuffed pillow. Lay down with his back to Cas.
“When’s Da coming back?” he asked softly.
Castelio twisted the wick on the lantern. The flame shrank and darkness rushed in. Not absolute — it was never full night on the Boundary since Bel had abandoned his chariot in the heavens — but the heavy clouds left a twilight that was deeper up in the hayloft. He lay back with his hands laced behind his head and thought about the chores that needed doing tomorrow, and how he’d manage them all with Lip and Teo to watch. He desperately missed Ma, though he knew they all had to be strong and do their part until she was better.
And she would get better. Da said so. She was past the seven-day mark. Ma was young and strong. Full of jokes and song and good cheer. Kaethe wouldn’t take her yet.
He slipped into a doze and woke to Lippa tugging at his hand. He sat up, instantly alert. “What is it?”
“I had an accident.” Her voice was small. “I’m sorry.”
His heartbeat slowed. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you some dry clothes.”
Lippa had started wetting the bed again since Ma got sick.
“Please don’t tell,” she begged.
Da wouldn’t be mad. He wasn’t that sort of man. But it seemed to be a point of pride with Lip, and so far, Cas had covered for her.
“I won’t,” he promised.
Lippa nodded in the half-light. “I’m thirsty, too, Cas.”
“Then I’ll bring you a cup of water. Do you need to go to the privy?”
She shook her head.
“Stay up here. I’ll be right back.”
He knuckled grit from his eyes and climbed down the ladder, hoping to see a light through the kitchen window that meant the men had returned, but the farmhouse was dark. Hadn’t it been more than two hours by now?
What was taking them so long?