It was witchcraft, it was magic, it was holiness and sin, the cloud of gray and grim that hung over the autumn land. As if nature itself was held in thrall by the otherworld—and it was. Stina knew that. She was a Lutheran, after all. She knew that forces dark and light waged war in that other realm, that good would one day triumph, that love would conquer all. She held fast to that belief as she clutched her cloak tight beneath her chin, spreading grain for the chickens on the ground.
Her shoes rustled through the fallen leaves as she worked, dodging hungry chickens. Johann had always been the one to rake the leaves. Without him, brittle, crushed brown litter scattered the lawn and barnyard. They rattled in the wind, scuffed through the air in eddying circles, whispered like a ghostly breath. He left, he left, they taunted. He was gone, but the leaves remained. If he was considerate, he would have taken the leaves with him.
And then came a crunch in the leaves. Stina paused, half-hunched over the grain. The chickens strutted and pecked the ground, scratching in the dust.
But Stina listened.
The sound came from the side of the barn, and Stina stood up straight, a twitch pulsing suddenly behind her eye. Her fingers curled into a fist around the grain bucket’s handle, so tight that they went numb and cold. For she knew it was him. No one else would call so early. Johann’s disregard for time and propriety belonged to him alone.
Well, he’ll just have to wait. She was going to make him. Stina thumped the bucket down and bent to tug on her slouched stockings just as the crunching sound came around the barn. A pair of worn boots stopped in front of her, and while her mouth was smug, her heart pounded as she lavished extraordinary care and time on her stockings. She smoothed each wrinkle and imagined him watching—his thumbs in his pockets and a furrow between his eyes—down the bridge of his nose. What would she say when she faced him? Everything that came to mind was bitter or desperate, and that would not do.
He didn’t speak, and her breathing intensified. To be alone with Johann without sarcasm and sound always seemed such an intimate thing. Now it sent blood rushing to her cheeks so fast that she was dizzy—which ruined her attempt at graceful nonchalance, for she teetered off-balance, still bent over her stockings, a silly, petty girl with her bottom in the air, clumsy and sad.
So she stood. And then she gasped and sputtered and stumbled and knocked over the grain bucket, and her breath was strangled and her vision swimmy. For this was not Johann. This was Varick Heintzelman. And Varick Heintzelman was dead.
He looked wonderful good for a dead man, though not so good for a man who was alive. He had no greatcoat against the autumn chill; he’d vanished in June, and wore the same clothes now as he had then. Ash-blonde hair hung in tangles round a face that had gone from lean to gaunt since he’d been gone.
Stina held her hands to her chest, inching toward him. The wind billowed softly in Varick’s shirt, and somehow, it made him seem more real to see the same breeze stir his clothes that also brushed her face. She hesitated, but then reached one trembling hand toward him. He jerked away violently.
“Don’t touch me!”
His eyes held the turmoil of the otherworldly skies. Hexeri, her people’s word for magic. Angry and wild, desperate and pleading. And hungry. “Of course,” she said. She didn’t know what she was thinking, grasping for him like that. Though she’d fancied him for some time before he vanished, she never had proof he felt the same.
And now? Though she dared not ask, still she wondered: Where have you been?
And then, she remembered she had something to tell him, something crushing and sure to sink him lower than he already looked. Her eyes burned, and a pain like a chicken’s peck pricked her heart.
“Your mother died yesterday,” she whispered.
She didn’t remember her own mother’s death. But if the agony of not having a mother could be so deep, what must it be to remember the loss? She swallowed past the lump in her throat and waited for his pain.
“I know,” he said.
She wanted to pull him into an embrace. She knew that hollow tone. But there was nothing for it. She couldn’t nourish his soul, couldn’t bring his mother back, couldn’t take away his pain. The only thing she could do was feed him.
“Will you come in for breakfast?”
He looked childlike in a way, his tattered clothes askew, his hair astray. Warm sympathy spread through her, and before she could help herself, she reached for him again.
Then there was nothing childlike in his eyes. “Don’t touch me.” His face slackened, shoulders sinking, and he looked at the ground. “It’s not you, Stina. It’s me.”
She cinched her hands in the folds of her skirts. When she was a child, Grandfather had told her of a Rhine princess who met a frog by the river one day, and Varick made her think of that frog, ready to leap away. Would he ever have spoken so to her before? He was a quiet man, but not secluded. Before he vanished, Varick was ponderous and dreamy, nothing like the man before her now. Human touch had never bothered him back then. She’d seen other girls touch him—his arm, his shoulder, his hand—as she watched him from afar on market days with Johann hissing, I warned you about him, in her ear.
“Come after me,” she murmured, and shuffled toward the house.
It was humble and beloved and built from stones Grandfather had hauled from the river when he crossed from Germany to Penn’s land, to make a home where he could worship as he chose and not by some prince’s whim. Stina had been born here, as her father had. She hoped to die here as he had, too. It had never occurred to her to view her house in any light save fondness. But she imagined now what Varick must see, and shame burned in her veins. She thought of the Heintzelman farmhouse, with its long porch and two full stories and summer kitchen in the back. Its image flooded her mind as she approached the meager cabin fringed with dead chrysanthemums.
Well, she thought, considering he’s just returned from the dead, I doubt he’ll be picky.
She clacked onto the cobbled stoop. So quiet, after the crunching leaves. And the chill reached right out of the stones to curl up her skirts and grip the bare skin between her stockings and underthings. Ice rippled up her spine, or maybe it was the pressure of Varick’s eyes on her back. Either way, she hastened, running with the wind, to thunder up the step and to the door.
He spoke as he ascended behind her. Almost a whisper, it was. “You should be sure this is what you want.”
“There are things you don’t understand.” He squinted into the distance as if pained. “If you let me in, you’re a part of those things. I can’t take you out of them again.”
She shivered at the stark desperation in his eyes. What things? she wanted to ask. Yet as she opened her mouth, the question scattered on the wind. Stina sighed. It didn’t matter. Did the Samaritan ask the beaten man how he came to be on the side of the road? Varick bore no bruises, but there were beatings that marked the soul and not the skin.
So she answered, “You are welcome in my home, no matter what your troubles be.”
He smiled. Gravely, but he smiled.
As Stina opened the door, warmth washed across the threshold. The scent of coffee and sausage filled the air. At breakfast time, its savor and spice had been heavenly, but it sat ill in her stomach now, its grease fuzzing her tongue. She breathed through her mouth as she hung her cloak, and focused on her hands, willing her fingers to thaw so she could serve Varick’s food without dropping anything.
Grandfather didn’t look up as they entered. He was bent over his plate whittling a block of wood, sawdust and shavings on his bread. His tongue poked out the corner of his mouth as he squinted, pushing his knife down the wooden block. “Did you feed the horse?”
She whisked his plate away from him and shook her head, conscious of Varick’s eyes on her back. “As much sawdust as you eat of a morn, I’m surprised you don’t cough up firewood every night.”
One side of his mouth tipped up. “Your father used to tell me that.”
She knew. She hadn’t known the first time she said it, but now she spoke those words to him each morn. Today, with Varick watching, they felt foolish in a way they never had before.
Grandfather’s attention traveled to Varick and brightened. “Varick Heintzelman! You’re up early. What can I do for you this morn?”
Her eyes shot to Varick, but his reply was smooth. “It’s about your grain is all. I offered to ride with Stina to the mill.” His gaze met hers briefly, and it had the strangest effect on her chest, both easing the taut worry there and adding a new ache of thanks.
“Well.” She wiped her hands on her pinafore. “I promised to serve you breakfast, ja? Is sausage all right? Please, have a seat. I’ll pour you some coffee. There’s bread on the table, and”— She clapped a hand over her mouth. How was it that she talked so much when she didn’t know what to say?
She reached for the sugar bowl just as Varick stepped in for a chair, and he changed directions, made a wide circle around her rather than walk past her. Stina furrowed her brow and crossed to the cupboard, nearly tripping on a corner of the rug. What was she to make of him? He had come here, of all the other places he could go, with primal, empty eyes and an absolute vehemence for being touched. He knew of his mother’s death, which meant this wasn’t his first stop. Had he gone home first or somewhere else? And why to Stina’s next? What could he possibly need?
That, she decided, is what you must find out.
She sloshed the last sugar crystals into the sugar bowl, but hoped Varick took his coffee black; this was all they had until market day brought money to refill her supply. Stina glanced at Varick behind her. He sat across from Grandfather with shoulders hunched, hands pulled inside his sleeves. His lips were pale though not blue, and he didn’t quake, but a chill beyond the natural seemed trapped within his frame, so brittle and biting that the slightest twitch might shatter him to pieces. The floor fairly dipped beneath her as she realized her grievous neglect. She should have offered him her cloak while they were outside. Stood in the icy wind with him, she had, and not once made an offer that would warm him.
Coffee. Coffee would warm him, if she stopped being so slow about it. A test of the pot on her palm found it warm yet, and she scooped it up along with a mug and the sugar bowl. She dumped them on the table, managing not to spill anything, hands flying as her head pondered how she might pry out Varick’s answers.
“…nice of you to help Stina,” Grandfather was saying. He set his knife and carving on the table and leaned toward Varick. “Johann has his own grain to tend. Planted his father’s old fields this year on top of mine. I told him not to, but he’s stubborn.” He held out his mug for a refill. “Anyhow, how’s your mother?”
Stina went still as a stone, the coffee pot poised over Grandfather’s cup. A single drip escaped and splashed on the bottom. She dared a glance at Varick, pulse ricocheting in her ears, but his only sign of grief was a tightening round the eyes. “She’s fine.”
She couldn’t look at him. She went back to pouring coffee, concentrating on Grandfather’s hands. He had long, thin fingers. Graceful hands. A Warman trait that Stina had inherited. But the skin of Grandfather’s hands was as grooved and lined as the table beneath them, puckered at the knuckles, and shaky as he held his mug. His lungs, too, rattled with his words. “Glad to hear it. I know she took your father’s death hard. A good man he was.”
And he laid a hand on Varick’s own.
Varick gave a strangled gasp. He yanked his hand back, sucking air in hissing gulps as he stared at Grandfather’s outstretched fingers. Stina dropped the pot on the table and dashed to Varick’s side; she opened her mouth to speak, but Grandfather beat her to it. “Varick, are you all right?”
He jerked his head toward Grandfather, and his eyes grew wider yet. For a moment, all was silent save the snapping of the flames, which had grown hot and oppressive, thickening the air so that Stina struggled to breathe. He wet his lips. “I need…I…I have to go outside.”
Varick bolted from his chair and raced out the door, leaving it open to flounder in the wind. Grandfather blinked at the gap, eyebrows pinched in wrinkled confusion.
“I’ll be back,” Stina sighed.
She left Grandfather behind, making the door shut after her, since Varick didn’t seem inclined to do it. It was a peculiar habit of the emotionally distressed, dashing through doors without closing them. Angry people usually remembered to close doors—quite loudly, in fact. So was anger a more rational emotion? It never seemed so at the time. Then again, nothing was ever exactly as it seemed.
As for how Varick seemed…
These thoughts sailed away as the chill slammed against her, wiping her mind clean and sending the numbness back to her fingers. Her nose tingled icy as she pushed into the wind. Somehow, she found this discomfort more fitting than a balmy breeze, which would feel positively obnoxious given the state Varick was in.
And there he was. He stood under the plum tree in a pool of brittle leaves, turned so that she couldn’t see his face. Tension etched itself in his shoulders, rising and falling as he breathed. Stina paused on the path, the small orchard lined up around her, and moved cautiously onto the leaf-strewn grass. She rested her hand on the rope from her old tree swing, but pulled back, reminded of the one who had made it. For a moment, she simply watched. Such a solemn, mournful sight he made. Her hand drifted back to the swing, and she clung to it, unable to resist memories of brighter days, wondering how to bring them back—to bring them to Varick as well.
She slid her hand down the rope, tasted the burn on her skin, and swung away from it to stand behind him. I don’t know what to say to him, she thought. There’s something wrong, and I don’t know why, and I don’t even know how to ask. She lifted a hand toward his shoulder, but curled her fingers and dropped it at her side.
“I want to help you,” she whispered.
“Bring me a chicken,” he replied.
Stina blinked. She gazed across the yard at the milling birds. “A chicken.”
She pursed her lips.
She supposed it wasn’t the strangest request she’d ever received. Johann had once asked to borrow her wool cards when he lost his hairbrush. But Varick was not Johann. There was no one like Varick. No one so calm, so confident, so poised. She once had mused that he was like a man from a fairy tale, for he never made a fool of himself, tripped on things, slipped in the ice and snow, did anything graceless or clumsy or resembling all of Stina’s many faults and mishaps. Now she wondered if she ever really knew him, or if he was simply that changed. A tightness burned in her chest. If only she’d had the chance to find out.
I’ll bring him a chicken, she decided. Not because I once felt for him. I’ll bring him a chicken because he looks so desperate, and this is the only thing I know to do for him.
She waded into the sea of chickens and scooped one up by its legs, bringing her other arm around to cradle it to her chest. “Good bird,” she murmured. It was a pretty one, with its showy crimson comb and the fountain of feathers on its tail. And its nature was sweet. It nestled in contentedly at the sound of her voice, ruffling the feathers that brushed Stina’s neckline. She savored the chicken’s heat, which seeped through her layers of wool and linen, warm against the spot over her heart.
As she faced Varick, she found him already waiting, his eyes so intent on the bird that she drew back reflexively. Stina trailed her fingers lightly over the glossy feathers. “Good bird,” she said again. “Pretty bird.” She shuffled the last few steps toward Varick, lingering to pet the bird before she eased the chicken down at his feet.
Varick regarded it for a moment, then crouched and placed his fingers on its head. Blue sparks shot from his fingertips, and the chicken fell to the earth, dead.
Something like a wail tore from her throat. Varick pulled back from the bird, and Stina sank to her knees by its carcass, stretching her hands over it but not touching. In that instant, her jumbled mind managed to make sense of things—Varick’s insistence that no one touch him, his panic when Grandfather did. But when Grandfather had touched him…why had the chicken died but not…
Varick’s hand was pulled inside his sleeve then.
She tilted her head back to look at Varick and found him staring at her in return. “Bring me another.” His voice was level, far more level than she would have thought possible given what she’d just seen. “This time, it should live.”
She rocked back on her haunches, the hens’ cluck and cackle droning behind her, and of all times and all things to care about in this world, she thought she might cry over her pretty chicken. She wished he’d told her what he was doing before he touched that hen. If she’d known, she might have picked a more disagreeable one. Such a silly thing. She chose chickens for slaughter often enough to know not to attach herself to any of them. But this had been different. The chicken’s death had been unnatural. Those horrid blue sparks flashed before her eyes, and the hair on her neck stood on end, and winter itself took up residence in her veins. The wind howled, its spectral hands tugging at her hair and skirts, and she wrapped her arms around herself. From the corner of her eye, the sheep in their pen huddled for warmth, and she idly thought of diving in with them.
A cluck came to her ears, louder than the rest, and a chicken strutted toward her, rustling the leaves. Stina took the bird into her lap and cuddled it to her chest, leaning away from Varick, who knelt before her. “Come, Stina,” he coaxed. “Don’t you trust me?”
She was startled by her question, by the hint of anger in her voice, and flushed with guilt. Hesitating only briefly, she dumped the chicken in the leaves, biting her lip as she ran her hand over the dead one’s feathers. “I’m sorry.”
He didn’t reply. He didn’t seem to care. He tucked his hand into his sleeve and brushed the chicken’s back. It clucked and strutted away, and Varick let out a breath.
For a moment, silence tumbled through the air. Stina broke the hush. “Can I touch you?”
“Not my skin. Just don’t touch my skin.”
She unfastened her pinafore and wrapped it around her hand, quivering from something far more than the autumn chill. She had never done anything like this before. It sent tremors through her body and flutters through her chest; it iced and burned her skin all over, all at once. But this ache, this need—his and hers—would not go away, and with the thin white linen like a shroud between them, she pressed her fingers to his cheek and cradled it in her hand. She looked into his eyes, and he returned her stare, letting things unspoken pass between them, though what they were, she couldn’t say.
“I’m sorry, Varick,” she told him. “I don’t know what you endured, but it must have been terrible”— and, she thought, rather strange —“and I doubt you want to talk about it. But if I’m a part of this now, if you can’t take me out of it again, I need to understand.”
He closed his eyes. His lids were gray with fatigue, shimmering with oil from his skin, and his pale lashes stood out against the dark circles under his eyes. He clasped his still-covered hand round the one Stina had pressed to his cheek and held on for a very long time.
“It’s a hex,” he said at last. He took her hand from his face, but held onto it still. “I’ve been hexed.”
Stina opened her mouth, but she had nothing to say to that. Hexed. He’s even more like a fairy tale than I thought. If not for the blue sparks and the dead chicken between them, she would think he’d lost his mind. But she’d seen it with her own eyes, and now there was only one question, which she asked numbly, reality a world away. “Who gave you this hex?”
His eyes narrowed, and her hand ached as he clutched it tight in his fist. “The Lorelei,” he said.