Alex yawns enormously, bringing his hand up to cover his mouth too late; silver steams in the air in front of him like dissipating witchlight in the predawn. Ruth gives him a look out of the corner of her eye for it, which he resolutely ignores. He needn’t really be awake for this - Peter and Ruth will be doing all the work - and he’d almost rather be asleep, but nor does he want to lie abed and let the blessing wash over him with all the weight of sunrise and simply have them return to the farm, bright-cheeked with cold and fair glowing with delight in which he cannot share.
“Right,” Peter says, addressing the flock of sheep rather awkwardly and clapping once before sliding into wringing his hands. The animals continue cropping the dew idly and pay no mind whatsoever to the three of them, shivering slightly with their wool cloaks wrapped tightly around them. “Um.” Ruth laughs at this auspicious opening and Peter huffs good-naturedly. “Oh, you do it, then.”
Ruth inclines her head gratefully and slightly mockingly at this honour. “Right,” Ruth repeats, with a grin, and Alex ducks his head against a laugh. But then she sobers and holds her hands out to either side of her with a deep breath and closed eyes. “Listen we, and beg to be heard,” she intones, and Alex can see Peter’s eyes fall shut too. Already there’s a slight suggestion - a sharpness to shapes and colours that was not there before, the pricked ears of the waiting wind, the sensation of eyes on the back of his neck - and Alex can rather see why they close their eyes against this barrage of almost-no-change. There is something there that Alex cannot see, and it nearly hurts to look at it. “Respect we the order of the world and our place therein and He who created it; exchange these honours for humble gifts.” Peter reaches out blindly but with strange omniscient precision to place just the fingernail of his little finger against Ruth’s thumb and at this cue Alex extends the thin, papery leaf of a palm frond through the strangely sharp and edgy world to lie it gently in her other hand. He fears, for a moment, that the whispering, waiting wind will snatch it jealously away, but the moment his fingertips leave it the wind drops in a curious bubble around them. The world beyond looks oddly watery, the sheep unfocussed to his woolly gaze, but within Peter and Ruth are sharper than ever and look almost cut out from some other place and pasted into his view. Alex’s eyes water and his feet buzz with some strange instinct to flee, but from what and to whom he cannot be sure: Peter and Ruth have ever been safe havens and he dreads contact with the bubble’s boundary, but the oddness sets his teeth on edge.
“Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,” Ruth murmurs, voice anechoic in the bubble. “Miserere nobis. Dona nobis pacem. Palm to palm, bless us.”
Suddenly there’s a flash of what seems like controlled lightning in Ruth’s upturned hand and the leaf is abruptly no more than ash. The bubble rushes away from them, making Alex’s ears pop, but in a blink all is as it was. The sheep appear entirely unchanged and undisturbed; the dewy grass barely sways in the aftershocks; Alex could believe he had dreamt it all, were it not for the handful of ash in Ruth’s palm and the strange burn in his eyes, like squinting into the sun for too long.
Ruth and Peter open their eyes and separate. Peter peers over at her palm, seeing something Alex cannot in the ash, and hums approvingly. “Did it work?” Alex has to ask.
“Seems like it, though we’ll not know until lambing, of course,” Ruth says. She seems pleased, though, as she holds her hand up to the wind and lets the dust scatter on the breeze. “Perhaps we ought to use the English prayer, now, though; only I can’t remember how it goes.”
Peter shrugs at Alex. “I’d not have used any words at all.”
“You’re a terrible heathen,” Ruth tells him conversationally, and Peter accepts this with good grace. There’s a brightness to them both, that open-eyed alertness most often found after splashing one’s sleepy face with cold water, and Alex is oddly separate: admiring a beautiful picture, but not a part of it. It rankles, as if his heart has stepped an inch to the right of its usual place in his chest, all off-balance and uncomfortable. “Right, that’s that, then. Onwards, ever onwards,” Ruth declares, tugging her cloak a little tighter around herself as she turns towards the gate and the track back to the farm.
Peter claps Alex’s shoulder as they turn to follow, offering him a crooked grin. The handprint tingles on his skin; what for, Alex couldn’t exactly say - magical residue, sticky and ubiquitous, or something else entirely. “Nice weather for it,” Peter says, gesturing at the cloudless, bluing sky. “I swear, every year when I was young it sleeted.”
Ruth snorts in derision. Alex squints at the light seeping out of the horizon like water into earth. “It’ll rain, later,” he prophesies glumly.
Ruth and Peter make noises of objection - not at his verdict, but the injustices of life at it being so. Alex is always right about this sort of thing: however clear the day or warm the breeze, Alex knows how to find the upcoming front of change in his suspicious gaze.
He can’t quite settle the feeling that something bad is going to happen today.
He’s usually right about that sort of thing, too.
They rarely cast on that scale. Four times a year - Ash Wednesday, for the animals; Midsummer, for the crops; Holy Rood, to wassail the trees; and the winter solstice, so that it feels like they’ve done something , at least, to make the sun come back and the blasted winter end. Mostly, it’s little oddities: Ruth knitting with a lavender stick gripped in the curl of her little finger and counting stitches in yan-tan-tethera to produce somewhat water-resistant woollen stockings; Peter crushing up tree roots and clay and burying the handful in the middle of their new dry-stone wall for stability; Alex watching the stars until he knows when to take in the hay crop. Practical magic can only enhance - it won’t make socks and walls and good weather, but it might help.
Everyone says Ruth is a witch.
They’re right, of course, but that really isn’t the point: the point is that everyone says she is, and so she is regarded with equal parts awe and disapprobation whenever she strides through the village with her head held high. The people fear her when she walks by, shun her when she isn’t there, and like her despite themselves when she cheerfully engages them in conversation on market days, inquiring with genuine care and an excellent memory after aged relations and ailing livestock and dilapidated buildings. Alex can only trail at her elbow, carrying her basket and making terrible calf eyes at her in adoration and awe.
No-one ever says the same thing of Peter. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have the same aura of all-knowing all-bright make-right that Ruth does, but he can amble amongst the people with perfect ease, wandering around to other farms when someone wants his opinion on a resolutely shaky gate or strangely off-colour animal. He hums and prods things and hardly says anything - pronouncing neither advice, as the neighbour expects, nor enchantments, as Alex has come to - and yet, things seem to generally, vaguely improve after he’s been and had a look. Magic fingers, the old men joke when a hinge suddenly decides to swing right or a lamb decides to have another go at eating, and Peter laughs and rubs the back of his reddening neck with the charming half-smile of the secretly pleased.
No-one says that Alex is a witch, either, but nor should they. That would be a stretch of the imagination too far.
Ruth and Peter tell him that there’s nothing to it. It’s not even about the words, carefully written and erratically-spelled within the heavy ledger Ruth keeps hidden away with the salt in a crevice in the chimney; she knows most of them by heart now, but the book is still valuable, still dangerous. The words only direct the mind to better cast the spell, the way that the prayers Alex has been chanting since he was a child direct his thoughts to heaven. He likes the sound of them when Ruth says them, burning thyme at the threshold and sing-songing through snatches of English and Latin and Welsh, sometimes, and then something older even than that; the words flow, rounded and made smooth by common use like pebbles in a stream, and so comfortingly regular that Alex could set a clock by them. But Peter doesn’t use words at all, just gets his fingers grounded in the earth or against the warm flank of an animal or against Alex and Ruth and the world, for a moment, listens. This, Alex thinks, is the difference: Ruth calls, and Peter hears.
Ruth learned her letters in her family’s book. Alex can imagine her little baby fingers tracing along the lines of incantations to curse and bless and cure, to keep a kitchen clean or a bowl of milk cool, wriggling to be away from this boring book nonsense and out in the sun with the other children. Peter, though, had simply pressed his palms into the dirt and come up holding fistfuls of daisies. He’d wandered in his youth, tracing leylines with the soles of his feet, and landed eventually where two lines crossed and there found a young lady with a heavy book under one arm in a little cottage with a few fields, all alone and smelling of herbs and lightning.
“Are you saying I smell?” Ruth protests, laughing around objection. “Right charmer, you are.”
“No! No,” Peter corrects hurriedly, also trying not to smile. “Something else. I don’t know. You don’t smell. And magic smells nice, anyway.”
He'd arrived on market day, at Lammas, and gone for a song when Ruth had inquired after hired help. Only Ruth, though, the old men down the pub tell Alex later, some way into their cups and ten times more bitter than their beer. He'd not be hired for love nor money, else - she'd ensnared him with witchcraft, they're sure.
Alex, they say, followed his star like a wise man from the east. He knows things in the stars. Not usefully, exactly; weather predictions based on the shape of the clouds, guessing rain by mackerel skies, gut feelings looming low and large on the horizon with every meteor shower. It’s science, he protests, more than magic, but in his more fantastical moments he’s fairly sure it’s actually destiny, and he just happens to be the only one who can feel its heavy hand on his shoulders. All he really knows is that one day there was a rush of falling stars in the early morning dark, and Alex’s feet had itched and itched until he had walked out into the dew and ended up - here. In a cottage in the woods that smells like hearty dinners and dust in the rain and lanolin, and hidden underneath it all sweet, herby smoke.
Ruth is burning juniper, twisting the sprig carefully so that the ashes drop evenly over the table before she scrubs it. "Keeps it clean," she explains, somehow knowing that Alex is watching with interest those things which he cannot understand. He turns back to polishing his boots with some little embarrassment; he doesn't like, much, to be caught looking, like a child churlishly staring at the games that the other children refuse to include him in. But he hungers to know things, and he can't help his curiosity, and so his gaze lingers guiltily.
On the magic, and Ruth's quick fingers at their clever tasks, and Peter's hair in the sunlight, and other things he cannot have.
Peter's shoes click against the occasional flintstones which protrude from the path at odd angles as he jogs up to the door, breathing hard. "Ruth, you're needed; it's Mary Maxwell, the baby, it's-"
"Right, yes - oh, drat," Ruth says, attempting to drop everything and rush off to attend the birth, and also keep her fingers unburned. "Alex, could you-?" He takes the sprig thrust upon him with some trepidation but without opportunity to avoid it, and before he can object Ruth has her cloak slung over her shoulders and the bag of tools that's been sitting by the door for a week now over one arm, and she's saying "All over the table, and then meryw, gwneud yn lân," and with that she and Peter are both off down the path, leaving Alex holding the burning twig.
He does as he's told. "Meryw, gwneud yn lân," he pronounces into the quiet of the kitchen and feeling ever so slightly silly for it. "Please," he adds, assuming that it helps to be polite to forces far beyond one's comprehension and control.
The rolling concern in his gut says something will go wrong today and Alex thinks it could well be his attempt at magic - he wasn't expecting anything to happen, but nothing has. But then - maybe it will be something else instead. A little light magic, well, that's manageable; they can take their chances with a table. Only, the feeling feels bigger, and it isn't usually inclined to warn him of a little mispronounced Welsh - even if it would be just as useful to know beforehand which day his boots might spring a leak or his finger wear through his gloves or any other little inconvenience that infuriates just enough to spoil a morning.
But it doesn't feel so small, this feeling, and it shows no sign of abating as he scrubs the ash away with salt and water. So he will wait, edgy and nervous, and what will come will come.
This must be it, he thinks as he trots down the chalk road, boots catching on the upturned flints scattered like caltrops and only slightly more smooth. Despite all - and the all is considerable - there is a horrible, selfish part of him that is glad, ever so glad. There is ever a kind of relief to knowing, at last: the waiting is always worse, and Alex would rather know exactly what to expect or know nought at all. But the knowing here comes overburdened here with sorrow and grief and is laced all through with Alex's own comfort - at least he knows, now.
Ruth is sitting on a little bench by the door to the Maxwells' whitewashed chalky cottage. Her hair, almost more loose than tied now and barely gabled, shines vivid red against the pale of the cottage wall on which she leans, and against the pale, drawn tiredness of her face. She had been staring out over the hedge opposite, watching a group of magpies bounce and crow in the field beyond, but at his approach her eyes flicker to him and stay there, as if she had known when precisely he would appear. Ruth makes no move to move, shows no readiness to collect up the basket by her feet and wind her arm around his own and meander them gently back up the hill, and so Alex - for want of better comfort - sits beside her. Silent, they sit - there isn't much else to be said.
The sun is setting, now, and the light is thick and hazy with it. The white dust kicked up off the roads hangs and floats, particles caught in beams of light and trapped there like the sea shells, pressed far from home into the chalk. There was a preacher, once, that Alex had heard speak on a rare trip to Chichester for the big market there, who had said that the dead were not dead, but waiting; and that someday - and soon - they would rise from the ground and ascend, and that we need not, therefore, grieve. Alex wonders if the shellfish, too, will emerge from under their flintstone tombs on this day of reckoning; if the chalk dust trapped in light will also be free; if Mary Maxwell's baby will have the chance to grow older, when lifted by the hands of angels to that place beyond the sky.
The curate - a nice enough lad, some years younger than Alex and never quite sure of himself, but all the less so in Ruth's presence - fumbles up the road, crushing his good black felt hat between nervous fingers. Ordinarily, Ruth might chide him for that: say Thomas Knowles, good works went into that hat, and none the lesser for being earthly - you leave the poor thing alone. But she doesn't, and it's this as much as anything that has Alex wanting to put her basket on the one arm and her exhausted frame inside the circle of the other and shepherd her gently homeward. But that doesn't happen either. There is a business and an order to all things, to living and dying and sliding between the two in either direction, and though the business is now no longer Ruth's but Knowles', there's an order to this transition too which must be adhered to.
Knowles gestures awkwardly at the house with his much-abused hat. "Was there much-"
Ruth tilts her head, shrugs. "For the mother, of course. But baby, no. Not much of anything."
"Right. Right." Knowles fusses a moment, shuffling his feet in the chalk until dust coats his black shoes, thick and cloying and grey. "And - was there time?"
Ruth nods. "Thomas Maxwell, late of this Parish, born and died this day in the company of his mother Mary and his godparents, Alice Banner and Johane Williams." Her voice is level, quite clinical, and Alex wishes that Knowles wasn't there so that he could reach out slowly and wrap his hand around her own and press whatever he has into her palm. He wishes that he knew some little magic to comfort, like the herbs and words Ruth presses to their bruises and aches to relieve the pain. He wishes that he weren't so powerless, able only to see the rocks in the current ahead but incapable of altering the river's course. He wishes he had power enough to make things better, and he has none at all.
"I suppose that will be a comfort, eventually," Knowles says gently, frowning into the sunset as if he can't quite settle his eyes on the house yet. "That he was baptised, and with his grandmother and aunt. I am glad that you were there, too," he adds, which is as close as any churchman will ever come to acknowledging the extraecclesiastical role Ruth holds in the community. She'll never get a better.
Ever graceful, Ruth inclines her head - Knowles will never get a better, either. Drawing her feet neatly beneath her, she stands and collects up her basket; opposite, Knowles breathes in a great breath, squaring his shoulders out of their habitual roundness. He's not a bad clergyman, and Alex does respect him: he has a way of creating ease in others through an abundance of his own awkwardness, and it serves him and his parish well. He and Ruth nod to one another; the transition is complete; Knowles ducks into the darkness of the doorway and Alex follows Ruth into the gilded lane.
The magpies in the field spook at their approach, three of the four hurtling on rattling wings into the evening air. Four for a boy, and now - one… Alex tucks Ruth's hand into his elbow and relieves her of her heavy basket.
"John Maxwell thinks I bring the babies in that basket," Ruth tells him, and Alex can well imagine the boy watching her with his pale, suspicious eyes for a glimpse of an arm or a leg extended from the woven willow depths.
"What did you say?"
"I asked him where he thought I got them from. He says I make them, in a big brewers' cauldron full of arms and legs, and then deliver them when the mother is asleep." Alex shifts the basket on his arm, no lighter now than it was when Ruth left in the morning in a whirl of skirts and Peter's huffing breath, smelling of burnt juniper with Welsh rolling from her tongue like stones from a hilltop. So long ago now, it feels like, but Alex's foreboding is still heavy in his stomach and the basket of brewed-up baby bits is still heavy on his arm. "I don't know what he'll think now."
At the top of the lane is their cottage in the woods, and in the doorway is Peter, frowning into the sunset and waiting for their return. For all that he's leant against a doorjamb, feet clear of the earth by layers of wool and leather and cool stone, he looks a part of the landscape more than he does a man: the way that a hare, for all that it lives and breathes and runs, is as part of a field as the grass that it eats. It is a comfort just to see him; Alex feels Ruth breathe out a little tension, her hand going gentle on his arm.
He pushes off the door and strides ahead to meet them, his face caught in a soft frown. "I heard," he says, and Alex wonders if the whole village knows now, and not just the curate, crushing his hat and black as a shadow against the whitewashed walls; Johane Williams' husband, with his big blacksmith's hands folded and powerless before him as he says the baby - well, Alex, I reckon you ought to take Mrs Goodman home, now. I'm sorry; the inhabitants of that little dark room, with the bowls of water, secret saints, best sheets rolled out for marriages, births, deaths, and just enough holy water to baptise a baby, blank-eyed but still barely breathing, just enough to secure something better, now that he's gone, I promise.
Ruth nods. That's all.
"I'm sorry," Peter says, addressing them both as if it had been their baby who had failed to emerge from the basket. Ruth nods at that, too, and then allows Peter to pull her into his arms and cradle her head to his shoulder. Her hand stays wrapped around his, Alex's, elbow - he presses it with his own hand, helpless in the face of her pain. They're all sorry - for the baby and the Maxwells and themselves. Alex even spares a little sorrow for Thomas Knowles. Who comforts the comforter?
Peter strokes Ruth's hair gently with careful fingers, their whorls and nailbeds ingrained with mud. Part of the landscape, Alex thinks, and maybe that's what settles them - the earth and the magic in it that Ruth and Peter are always telling him about - but maybe it's how Peter knows when to be quiet and gently stroke over Ruth's cap and hair, and maybe it's all that and the indelible grubby fingertips that are so very Peter, and so very present upon the hearts of those who love him. Whatever it is, Ruth's eyes close and she leans all her world-laden frame into Peter and her hand grips Alex's fingers tightly, and for a while this is how they stand as the sun slinks guiltily below the horizon.
The next morning, when Alex wakes heavy from difficult sleep, the feeling of dread remains like lead in his chest. Worse than this is yet to come.
Alex tells the bees. He always does, when he can't wrangle his head on straight or line his thoughts up in neat ploughed rows to better weed out annoyances and confusions - picks a nice enough day or a break in the rain and settles beside the hives to talk to them. He receives, of course, no response: now, as spring approaches, there is a faint hum and one or two braver insects investigating the damp air about him, but in colder months there is only silence from the sleeping swarms. But he tells them in any weather, because his worries don't wait for summer skies, and because one has to, anyway, if one intends to keep one's bees.
Alex hunkers down between the hives, reluctant to sit on the wet grass in case the ominous clouds overhead should take to raining again and require him to beat a hasty retreat. His prophesied rain had come every night since Lent began and he's not sure it won't return. "Well," he says quietly, and can't quite think how to go on. The wind whistles, sending the heavy clouds sauntering westwards at their own steady pace, like a great animal that has been shoved away from its food trough but does not much want to go. Alex shivers.
It hadn't rained, although Alex almost wishes it had done. Perhaps it would have seemed more right, that way, to trail after the little box made with uncle Harry Williams' iron nails to keep the devil's claws clear, but then perhaps it never would have seemed right . No processions these days, we are told: no funeral marches and masses and songs. No purgatory, either, so why bother? So the train of people coming down the hill from the house to the chapel is no such thing, pure coincidence, and if old grandmother Alice Banner hums out her tears then what is it to anyone? Knowles, wisely, closes his ears and his eyes and opens his mouth on a familiar, traditional sermon.
They stand a little separate. The Maxwells will not want to see them, to see Ruth: they will say, she is a witch, and she cursed my baby. She is a witch, and yet she could not save him. They are hurting. There is no cure for that. But Ruth sees the boy buried, in the patch of consecrated ground she promised him when, in extremis, she had dripped blessed water over his newborn purple brow and dipped her toes momentarily into the curate's domain. Alex wonders if it ever goes the other way: if Thomas Knowles ever mumbles guilty ancient English over the creams that keep his hands comforting and smooth. And in the end, Johane Williams nods at them - a salute more at home between veterans on the battlefield than here, in the patchy sunlight and yew trees' shade - and Alex knows that they are as forgiven as grief will allow.
Regardless, Alex gathers up Ruth's hand and tucks it into his elbow, keeping her pressed close to his side. On her other side, Peter keeps her similarly pinned as if they could form a real wall that might keep her safe from woes. She offers them a sad, soft smile for it, and Alex wants to wrap his hands around her face and press it to his own, brow to brow, chin to chin - he wants to get close enough to her to eat her sadness up and keep her safe somewhere inside the circle of his ribs.
But he doesn't. Can't. He has no power here.
He has been silent between the hives some time, having eventually found the words in a heavy stream that has now run dry, when Peter finds him. His gentle knock against a tree trunk to question his welcome makes Alex first look up, and then manage half a smile in invitation. Peter grins back encouragingly and chucks an apple at his head before coming to sit at his side, wool on wet moss without a care.
"Enchanted your arse against the damp, have you?" Alex asks dryly, shifting his folded legs in his crouch and attempting to muster - if not levity, then something not far from it.
Peter reaches out an elbow and nudges him so that Alex topples without Peter even looking up from the apple he is neatly paring into quarters. The ground isn't as bad as he'd feared, but he still shoves Peter's shoulder in return, grinning despite himself. "Hey, knife," Peter points out, carefully not stabbing himself in the thigh, and then pointing the blade at Alex with schoolmasterly disapproval. "Dangerous."
"Beehive!" Alex says, rather incredulously, and gestures at the swarm-filled structure just an errant limb's swipe away. But this just makes Peter laugh, so Alex crunches into his apple to disguise his own amusement. "Seen the cows this morning?" he asks around his mouthful, stretching his legs out and attempting to put his mind from the bees and the burial and the burning yearning for Peter and Ruth and everything upon which he may not act. It's easier to do, now that Peter's at his side, shoving him out of himself. Worth the risk of an angry hive and slight stabbing, then, maybe.
Peter hums an affirmative, apple juice dripping down his chin. Alex wants to wind his fingers into the curls at the nape of his neck and tug him close enough to follow the line of the sweet, sticky droplet with his tongue, catching on sharp stubble and ending at Peter's lips, which Alex imagines would be soft, slightly chapped, parted in surprise. Alex has spent too long imagining Peter's lips, and what they might be like against his own, against Ruth's. I am enchanted, he thinks helplessly, not for the first time. "Pointed Ruth towards the next milkers, which seemed to cheer her a little. She wants cheese, and I'm told the brownies are furious for a bowl of fresh milk," Peter says calmly.
Alex looks at him sideways, assessing. He does this, sometimes: says something that Alex doesn't quite believe but doesn't know not to believe either, and then sits there hiding a smile as Alex tries to work out whether the man is pulling his leg or not. And then the smile creeps out a little too wide and Alex shoves his shoulder again, trying hard to be more cross than amused.
"Knife!" Peter objects again, laughing.
"Put it down, if you can't stop being annoying," Alex says, and then finally really laughs when Peter makes a great show of placing the blade on the floor at his feet.
Peter knocks their shoulders together. "I'm glad," he says after a moment, staring into the trees and abruptly solemn. "To hear you laugh again, I mean. Something's been eating you, lately, and then - well. Got worried, that's all."
Alex can't respond to that; can't draw words into his dry mouth to say - what? Sorry? Thank you? He thinks of telling Peter about the unsettled dread that's been shifting unhappily between his chest and stomach of late, but for all that he's been feeling it nearly a week now, it feels as though maybe if he doesn't mention it then all shall be well. Besides: unfocussed as it is, unable to guide him into wisdom or avoidance, there is no use in worrying Peter or Ruth with it.
"I chased a faerie, once," he finds himself saying instead, and Peter glances at him curiously. He can't say why he's telling Peter this: perhaps to keep him here, trapped in the elongated conversation, perhaps because Peter's words feel oddly like a gift and Alex wants to give him something in return. "When I was a boy. A man who turned into a white stag in the forest when he saw me."
"Why'd you chase him?" Peter asks, and Alex shrugs. He can't remember, now, why his still-growing limbs had hurtled him over fallen logs and crashed through bracken, scratched and tripped by hidden brambles, only that he had; that the faerie was beautiful, pale as mist and looking like solid moonlight even in the midsummer afternoon, and that he was dangerous somehow in a way that Alex never really understood and could not now convey.
"You always hunt white stags," Alex says. "Only you never catch them, right? And your mother tells you to keep clear of skinchangers and scolds you for ruining your good socks with mud and brambles."
He's joking, and rather expects Peter to laugh; but he doesn't. He squints at the treeline, as if the white stag might come charging from Alex's memories chased by Pwyll himself, and then tosses his apple core into the undergrowth. A bird startles at the noise, whirring into the sky on clattering wings, and Alex is too busy tracking its progress to see whatever it is that Peter thinks of his story; when he looks back, Peter is standing and turning away.
"Faeries aren't real, Alex," he says softly. "I'll see to the sheep; Ruth says supper's late tonight."
Alex wakes with a lurch, as if he's fallen down the stairs. His legs flinch out, tangling in the sheets, and the lead weight behind his ribcage is pressing, pressing -
-and then there's the scream.
He's flailing up and out of bed in moments, hauling on breeches in the dark and stuffing his feet into unlaced shoes. There isn't time to tie anything; he's mostly running towards the woods behind the sheep pens, partially tripping, holding his breeches up with one hand and cursing his boots. Ruth is at his side in moments, hair a wild pennant of red against the ghostly pale of her skin and her nightgown and her bare feet, as white and oddly glowing as the moonlit chalk they run on towards that horrible, familiar screaming. There is something strange and otherworldly about a chalk road by night: a path into the woods made of pure cool half-light, used by will-o'-the-wisps and wandering ghostly knights and Herne the Hunter, hallooing and thundering on his hunt for the unhuntable hind. Perhaps this is how, in the small hours, Alex and Ruth on their race to the crying seem to stretch their legs and fly.
They come to a clearing, and two figures drowned in moonlight. A man that Alex doesn't know turns briefly to see them arrive, but his gaze seems unable to stay long clear of the other figure, the one at whom he points his short, ugly blade.
It's Peter. Naked but for the nasty poacher's trap wrapped sharp and vicious around his ankle. He has pulled at it and screamed on pure animal instinct and in so doing lacerated his skin until his foot is coated in a horrid boot of blood, black and wetly shining in the night air. Alex takes in these details in pieces: face, foot, feeling of horrible and mounting dread.
Ruth gasps, hands coming up to her mouth and eyes fixed on the trap in horror.
"What is it," the other man says, the squat iron blade held out between himself and Peter like a talisman, like a threat. "What in the name of sweet suffering Christ is that thing. This demon that can turn from a beast into a man."
Alex is not looking at the man - the poacher. One doesn't go far from the traps; it's too risky to leave them where they might be seen by the landowner, or where they might harm someone unwilling to be paid to shut up about it. He would have come running with promises and pennies tripping from his tongue the moment a scream had been ripped from Peter. Alex is looking at Peter, who is staring back at them with wide eyes gone silver and black with fear and pain and unsettled, unsettling moonlight. His breathing comes too fast, his blood gone sludgy around his foot even as his chest heaves like the lambs when lifted from their mothers, sides shivering with the pressure of their terrified hearts against their too-vulnerable skin. Peter looks afraid of them - afraid of them all.
And when the poacher steps forward, eating into the good six feet between him and Peter, and Ruth says in a terrified, shrill sort of voice no, don't, Alex notices the light shining on the blade and glancing off the stubby hilt and soaking into the dark wood handle - yew, Alex thinks; that handle would be red in the daylight - and then the knife hits the floor and the back of the poacher's head makes an odd hollow noise as it thuds into the tree, Alex's arm suddenly pressed like an iron bar across the man's chest, almost across his neck. The in-between times are nebulous, short; Alex was standing still, and then he wasn't. The poacher was threatening Peter, and now he isn't. Alex is used, now, to powers he can't control: why not put love, brutal and raging, at the top of that list?
"Alex," Ruth says gently. "Alex." But she doesn't say stop - her voice suggests mercy, just about.
"Take your traps," Alex says, voice sliding smoothly like a snake between his rage-sharp teeth. "Take them and disarm them and get far away from me. Sweet suffering Christ help you if you ever come near me again, I'll show you a bloody demon."
The man cringes away from the viperous tone, but finds the tree at his back and squirms. Alex gives him a little shove and then relents; the man wriggles down the tree as though he's looking for a back scratch and stumbles away, glancing back over his shoulder as he crashes through the undergrowth. Alex watches him go, hands loosely fisted, and is frightened himself, a little, at how easily the fury had come to him. But then he thinks of Peter's ankle, shredded by the trap; of how the men down the pub talk so bitterly about Ruth; of hatred born of fear, and Alex is so afraid to have Ruth or Peter hurt.
There is a metallic noise behind him and he turns back to the clearing. Ruth is kneeling, hands gentle as she prizes open the trap, but Peter above her is still breathing too frightened, too fast. His eyes rove wildly in their sockets: hunting threats or exits, Alex doesn't know. The man had said beast: prey or predator?
The trap releases; Alex steps forward; Peter sees his angry, frightened fists and retreats into himself. His shoulders hunch and curl, neck shortening and back curling into a comma. Ruth gives a little cry of surprise and falls back as Peter folds up, legs shifting and changing, head going long and strange. Alex has that same sensation, of sharpness and staring into the sun, but more than the blessing: his eyes squeeze shut against what is happening entirely upon instinct. By the time he can force them open once more, Peter is gone. A hare with an injured foot and a dark pelt is racing at incredible speed into the underbrush.
"Peter!" he cries, as if he thinks there is any getting him back now. He can't bear that thought head on.
Ruth's mouth is open in surprise as she sits in the grass and watches him go, but at that it snaps shut in an expression he knows well, loves better: immovable determination. "Right," she says, getting to her feet. "Cunning woman? I'll give you cunning."
And Alex can only watch as Ruth spits words he doesn't understand like curses, oaths, promises; she says guiscard and anwændednys and geþanc, and then Ruth is no longer standing before him. The fox races after the hare, red tail streaming like a pennant against the pale patchy moonlight, and Alex starts to run.
He crashes through the bushes like the devil himself is at his heels without a thought for the bracken scratching at his shins or the thin branches whipping at his bare arms and head. Ruth is fast, but Peter - the hare - is just as quick even on a wounded foot, relying on his headstart alone to keep clear of the fox's silent paws which carry Ruth like a ripple through the woods. Alex is blundering after them with his feet slopping about in untied boots, one arm up to shield his face from the vicious pine boughs between which he careens wildly, and he cannot hope to catch up but he run, runs, sees them break out onto the open downs and race along the ridge and-
-stumbles at last, a bramble succeeding in wrapping around his shin and sending him sprawling over the boundary of the forest onto the great open downs. His shin squeals in pain, scraped and bloodied as though clawed from knee to ankle by some vicious beast, and he knows as he looks up that he has lost them. Alex is lucky to see their silhouettes slides like shadows across water over the rise of the rolling downs before they are gone, vanished from him; he could never run so fast as Peter and Ruth on his battered human legs and stands even less chance of changing his own skin to catch them.
Alex slumps, breathing hard. His head rests against the turf, turned aquamarine in the moonlight; a flintstone gone violet digs into his chin. He closes his eyes and waits for a long moment, for the thoughts of why did I have to step forward in anger; why was the trap ever there; why did Ruth have to suffer such a great sadness out of her control that I, powerless fool that I am, hurtled thoughtlessly into frightening those I would protect to pass through his head. Then he stands, pushing himself onto grazed knees and beginning-to-blister feet, and walks silently and slowly and alone down the cold chalk road.
He waits awake for a night and a day, finding reasons to stay wandering in concentric rings around the farmhouse where he might be most easily found by anyone in any shape in need of care. Alex tries very hard not to think about whether or when this might be. Harry Williams wanders by, presents him with an old horseshoe, suggests he might give it to Ruth. It feels like an offering; give the witch some solid iron to hang above her doorway up on the hill, facing east over the village, and maybe something will come of it. Alex says he will, and places it flat by the back door. Ruth says horseshoes are to be nailed up curve down, so that the magic doesn't drain out through the points. This makes Peter scoff and inform her that magic clings a little better than that, and that the devil will sit quite comfortably in her shoe over the front door but slide unhappily from his upside-down one over the back door. As far as Alex can tell, they're either both right or both wrong, and that it therefore possibly doesn't matter...? but elects not to mention it. Perhaps flat on the floor is best anyway; besides it he places two bowls, milk and water. Milk is for brownies, Alex, he can hear Peter laughingly chide him. Or hedgehogs, Ruth suggests, amused. He knows them too well, can hear them too clearly - wants to say well, what do hares and foxes eat, then? out loud. Is this how it's to be? Alex, leaving offerings by the door and talking to ghosts in his head; Ruth and Peter, running wild and free as a fox and a hare, an otter and a trout, a snatching breeze and a dancing leaf, away and away and away.
But in the evening, when he is dozing into a lump of bread and last year's hard cheese, so sharp and nutty that he can feel it in his gums, there is a scratching at the door. Alex leaps to it, almost tripping over his chair as he goes, and pulls the door open to see a fox, looking untidy with bracken caught in its pelt and chalk dust like stockings coating its legs, holding a docile hare in its jaws. It is, as expected, looking disdainfully at the bowl of milk; but the brush of the tail curls and settles over the horseshoe. Ruth's sharp eyes meet his own, and Alex shrugs helplessly. "I didn't know what to do."
Fox-Ruth softens and crosses the threshold to press against his ankles like the curate's cat, that purrs and fusses as if it had never been fed whenever it comes across anyone at all. Alex leans down, running a hand down her side from ears to tail to feel her soft fur, and Ruth shivers. He'd not do any such thing if she were wearing her own skin, but it is so easy now; he hopes she will forgive his weakness, as he is lonely, and since he does it only for loving her so well. She trots free of his hand and leaps in smooth bounds from the floor to his chair to the tabletop and lays Peter gently down. Alex is worried, momentarily, that something terrible has happened between these two people-turned-animal out on the downs, but then Ruth nudges Peter's long, pointed head with her dark, wet nose; her tongue darts out, small and pink, to groom a stripe behind his long black-tipped ear and Peter sits up as well as he can without much moving his rear left paw. Alex reaches out with gentle fingers, very slowly, to stroke the softness on Peter's brow. The hare rewards him with a flick of the ears and a press of the delicate, narrow head into Alex's palm, and he has to shut his eyes briefly and huff a laugh in relief. Lord, it is pleasant to be forgiven.
The paw is clean enough to see that it is simply very badly cut up in a ring above the foot, like a crown of jagged pain. Ruth and Peter watch as Alex flutters about the kitchen in the evening light to find poultices and bandages and Ruth's book of spells and cures and useful things, keeping up a train of irrelevant nonsense chatter to keep his mind from thinking too hard. Ruth's head is resting on her paws with Peter sprawled against her side; it would look comical, fairy-tale, to see predator and prey so contented together, only Alex knows them to be harmless - and human. He doesn't ask when - if - they are to take up their old forms again, and walk the earth at his side.
Alex binds the paw in herbs and clean linen, watching for signs of pain in the hare's unexpressive face. He even recites a spell over it, the fingers of one hand lain gently over the bandage and those of the other hand tracing underneath the uneven lettering of words he doesn't know. Ruth swishes her tail back and forth, watching him; Peter pats his hand with a foot as it passes and tosses his ears. Alex hopes that means something good, and not cow with leather horns? More like man with leather brains.
Ruth follows him to the pantry when he stands. She can jump easily from table to earth, light and silent and smooth, but Peter's attempts to scramble along the tabletop on three legs has Alex hurrying back. "No, no, don't - you can't jump down," he tells his silent - and unimpressed - friend. Peter puts his forepaws on Alex's arm and stares up at him as balefully as a hare can. Which is not very, but Alex knows it's Peter; that he's hurting and wrong-shaped and has been away from home all night. And so he sighs and scoops the hare up against his chest. Peter puts his head under Alex's chin, ears long enough to tickle Alex's own, and wriggles in smug contentment. Ruth makes a noise that sounds distinctly like a laugh, winding around Alex's ankles and liable to trip him. He pushes her little pointed face away, trying not to flush in embarrassment at being such a sentimental pushover, but she ducks back in to rub her cheek against his shin. Affectionate, whether he'll have it or no.
He fetches the last of the salted bacon and some carrot tops from the pantry, juggling a wriggling hare and trying to avoid Ruth underfoot. She wants to stick her head in things and sniff them with her new stronger senses, and this means a swishing tail in his way while she runs her nose over the onions and carrots they store in the dark under the shelves. Peter is no help, his whiskers twitching and itching against Alex's neck, and eventually he has to place animal and dinner both on the worktop and dance away to scratch at his jaw furiously. "You've got fleas, Peter," he tells the hare upon his return, and gets kicked with Peter's good paw for it.
Ruth turns her nose up at the suggestion she eat from a plate on the floor and so he sets places at the table, feeling rather silly for it. Peter sits beside his plate, munching happily, and Alex manages to contain himself until Ruth has licked up every trace of bacon from her plate and jaws before bursting into uncontrollable, breathless laughter. He is sitting at the kitchen table; he hasn't slept in a day; there is a hare on the table and a fox sitting up in a chair, eating delicately from pewter plates as if the king himself has come to tea; and Alex is in love with a witch and a warlock. He laughs until he cannot inhale enough to laugh anymore, until he wheezes, until Peter drags himself along the tabletop to press his forehead soothingly against Alex's own. Breathing is hard; he can't quite chase the panic from his lungs. Perhaps he is mad, or dreaming, but the small furry head feels real and present, and Alex pets Peter's side gently and slowly until his strokes and breaths synchronise and calm. Ruth drops from her chair and headbutts his knee - I am here. It makes him hiss and wince, though, even as it settles his heart, and she noses around his shin in concern until he concedes to shifting his breeches and socks and showing her the nasty grazes there. Peter presses his head to Alex's temple in sympathy and Ruth licks the edge of his kneecap with her sandpaper tongue. Alex fusses with their soft ears gently, feeling oddly better for it; magic, he supposes.
"Thank you," he says. "For coming back."
Ruth jumps into his lap and settles her head, eyes closed, against his shoulder. Peter pushes into his hand and then flops down beneath it so that Alex's thumb rests over his surprisingly slow and calm heartbeat. Alex hopes that this means thank you for staying.
"Is it that you can't change, or won't?"
Peter thumps his good back leg into Alex's chest twice, shifting inside the sling Alex has made by lacing Peter into his doublet and belting it carefully.
"Yes, alright, you've a good excuse, but I reckon you're healing quicker in this shape anyway. That, or I'm suddenly better than Ruth at healing magic."
A sudden shove of soft fur and solid muscle against his knees and he stumbles.
"I didn't think it was very likely. So what is it then?"
Ruth whines and spins in a little circle. She sits abruptly and drops her face to the floor, resting her paws over her muzzle.
Alex frowns. "Because you can't talk? But - does that mean you're-?"
She makes a very unhappy noise and stands, front paws against his thigh. Obligingly, he crouches and lets her up against his chest as well to press her face for comfort into the base of his neck where Peter can fuss at the space behind her ears. Alex walks on, a fox in one arm and a hare in his doublet, and worries. It's been a few days since their return and while he is getting used to little paws pressing his thigh to demand a lift and tiny hairs tickling at his throat, he would vastly, endlessly prefer Peter and Ruth as they ought to be: wise and wonderful, chatty and charming, human-shaped and heartwarming. He wouldn't mind them curled up to his sides for comfort, or following him about as he manages the farm as best he can alone, but he misses them even as they refuse to ever wander out of his sight. Alex loves them; rather wants to tell them so; greatly wants to have things back as they ever were, so perhaps he won't say. But if Ruth can't change…
"Peter," he says, "could you change Ruth back? If we waited until you were better, I mean."
Peter tilts his head, thinking, and approximates a shrug. Alex sighs, wishing he weren't the only one with hands, fingers, a working voicebox and no useful knowledge whatsoever. Peter pats his jaw gently with a paw; it's almost embarrassing, how much better it makes him feel.
"Alex - Alex Langlands, have you seen - Saints preserve us," Johane Williams says, slightly out of breath. Her fingers flutter up to her sternum in shock; Alex guesses that there's a saint's medallion hidden under her shift there. He wishes now he'd not been so preoccupied and hadn't simply turned back at the sound of his name, humming curiously as if there wasn't a thing odd about the menagerie he's made of his shirt this morning.
Ruth and Peter go subtly limp in his arms and he takes the hint. "Been bothering the chickens for weeks, this one," he says with a forced smile and some careful manoeuvring to keep Ruth's glossy fur from sliding out of his grip. It's not quite a lie: days, not weeks, but the chickens really don't care for Ruth's new shape. She's a wonder for herding sheep, though, but had sulked with her head buried in her tail when Alex had suggested she take on the life of a sheepdog. Don't be like that, he'd crooned, stroking down her spine as she resolutely ignored him. Peter's no use at all in any shape. A thump of paw against table - Peter's communicative cure-all, in this case meaning hey! - and Ruth had lifted her head up to grin sharp white teeth at them.
"Of course," Johane murmurs, recovering admirably and not questioning why Alex is taking the bodies away from the farmhouse and towards the chicken coop. "Well - have you seen Ruth Goodman? It's my sister, Mary, something's not right."
Alex feels Ruth tense in his arms. "Ruth's not well, I'm afraid," he forces himself to say. Ruth is going to bite him, playing dead or not, if he can't wrangle some hope for Johane out of this, so he adds: "I'll see how she is and send her down if she's well enough. Is your mother with her?"
"Yes," Johane says, happier now he's promised her something. They set out quickly back towards the house and village. Ruth is tensed and ready to leap from his arms; Alex can almost feel thoughts running through Peter's head as fast as his feet. "We've tried what we know, and my mother is praying."
Alex nods, leaves her to run back down the hill to her sister with a last few platitudes of comfort, bursts through the door to the house and slams it behind him before unloading an anxious, wriggling fox and rather determined hare onto the table. Ruth whines at him.
"I know, I know, but what do you expect me to do?" he asks of them uselessly. He's combing and backcombing his hair wildly, almost fit to rip it from his head.
Peter hops to the edge of the table, pointing his nose at the fireplace with its salt nook and precious hidden tome. Book, he mimes with tiny paws.
Alex looks back at him for a second. "I've gone mad," he says calmly to the small selection of woodland creatures ranged upon his kitchen table. But then Ruth leans over and bites his hand hard enough to hurt but not break the skin and he shakes his head. It must be frightening to need teeth to get attention. "Well, who hasn't, these days," he says, running his bitten hand over Ruth's head to show no hard feelings and stroking Peter's chin with a finger, and he fetches the book out of the fireplace.
He opens it out on the kitchen table, supposing that even in these shapes Peter and Ruth can contribute as much as he can. Ruth wants to nose at the vague semblance of a contents page, but Alex - Alex has a feeling. He flips the pages at random, stops and smooths his hands over some crooked writing which reads on ye changynge of shaepe. "Hmm," Alex says, not so much pleasantly surprised as content in his mild vindication. He reaches out his hands, unable to resist what may be the last time he gets to feel glossy soft fur under his fingers or have Ruth and Peter close and tactile. They come to him willingly, pushing small velvety heads into his palms as if maybe they'll miss this, too, and then with magicians at his fingertips Alex begins to read.
Maybe it's like before: a bubble of strangeness, words smoothed with time, eye-burning oddity. Alex cannot later say what words he speaks or what things he sees. He is simply reading, and feeling soft warmth in his hands, and trying to change the world for love of Peter and Ruth and Mary and Johane and the baby and everyone, everything, the powerless and afraid. Some of it flows back, tidal and warming, and he clings to it more than the words: thinks of those he loves, and those who love him, and uses that to focus his mind on what he wants to change.
The page runs out of words. "Please," Alex adds, for good measure.
There is a moment of silence, and then the fox laughs; by the time he's looked up from the page, his hand has settled on a bare shoulder and it's Ruth, really Ruth, who is laughing at him. "Do you say please every time?" she says, delighted.
"Well, yes," Alex replies. His brain is busy being astonished that it worked. He can defend his methods later.
Peter reaches up and squeezes his hand, grinning. He's changed too, but doesn't seem the worse for wear. "Of course you do," he says, seemingly comfortable for all that he's naked and cross-legged on a table.
Ruth lays her hands on either side of his neck and leans in to kiss him quickly and square on the mouth. "Charming man," she says happily, hopping off the table and running upstairs to dress.
Peter cuffs him affectionately around the head and gets up to follow her. "You can have a thank you from me, too, when I've found my trousers," he says calmly, cheerfully.
Alex sits alone at the table, stunned. Bad things he sees coming miles off; good things come at him like bolts from the blue.
He ambles down in the evening with some bread and cheese to see how things are going and provide food, if she's likely to stay. He's done it a hundred times before for a hundred other patients, only now he's not sure what to do. The universe is remaining smugly obtuse, so Alex surrenders unto destiny the things that are destiny's - i.e., himself - and resolves to see how it goes.
Ruth is waiting for him again, on the bench in the sun. "All well?" he calls.
She points at the magpies in the field opposite: two, hopping about and arguing over sticks. Joy. She offers him a crooked grin when he breathes out in relief. "All well."
They wander slowly back towards the farmhouse with arms entwined and Ruth leaning in to rest her head at the base of his neck. Alex can still feel the imprint of a vixen jaw there, if he concentrates, but he likes better a linen cap and coppery strands coming loose against pale skin.
"John Maxwell wants to know if I'm making myself a baby in my basket," Ruth says.
"What did you tell him?"
"I said I'd think about it," she replies. As if it might be of interest to him, Alex, to know.
Peter is waiting for them, part of the landscape, and Alex knows why: warlock, skinchanger, cow with leather horns. It makes him smile, and Peter smiles back.
Peter limps forward, sliding the hand Alex extends in support around his waist. "What do you think, Peter," Ruth says, "shall I brew myself up a baby?"
Peter assumes a very innocent expression. "May Alex and I help?"
Alex chokes on surprise; Ruth, cackling, thumps him between the shoulderblades until he's coughed it out. "There now, is that any way to treat your saviour?" she chides mockingly.
"Oh, yes, sorry," Peter says, as if remembering to do something, and leans in to press soft lips to Alex's. "I'm very grateful," he says.
Alex looks from Peter to Ruth and back again. You're not to trust skinchangers: they're fickle and false. But he trusts Peter and Ruth more than anything at all - more than he trusts that the rains will come and go, that the crops will grow and ripen, that the sun will rise and set. "Really?" he whispers, hardly daring to hope.
Peter offers him a reassuring smile. "Really."
And this time, when Peter kisses him, Alex remembers to kiss back: an urgent press of all his worry and care and heavy hidden love. Peter makes a pleased noise in the back of his throat and Alex can feel Ruth smiling against his neck. Alex opens his eyes - when had they fallen shut? - and turns to bestow the same blessing upon Ruth, noting with delight as he goes that Peter and Ruth have crept their hands together to link their little huddle into a perfect triangle.
Ruth's book says: ye tryangle be a symbole of truth. It holdeth ye key to all wizdom. Ye tryangle be an item, and each part of ye tryangle be an item, and tho these parts yet be separate, yet be ye tryangle greater as a whole.
Remember ye this: ye may relie upon ye tryangle.
And then, in a different, newer hand: 3 herbs better than 1!! Remember!!
And then different again, and new enough that Alex suspects Ruth's pen: only if they're the right ones.
"Well, Ruth," Peter says, after a time most pleasantly spent, "shall you bless us with a spell?"
Ruth shrugs, curling into Alex's side. "Ooh, shouldn't say we need to - three magicians, as we are." She squeezes his hip, not wholly teasing.
Alex colours, shuffling awkwardly between them. Peter rubs the back of his head affectionately. "Of course! Magic's prodigal son, returned to the fold in time to un-enchant in extreme circumstances not one but two trapped changers."
"And much of that he even meant to do," Ruth adds with no small measure of pride. "A most auspicious start."
But that reminds him - "Peter, your leg - are you-?"
"Just fine," Peter soothes, gentling Alex's frown away and settling him back into his joy. "None the worse off for being enchanted by you."
Ruth squeezes their sides and smiles. "Rather the better, wouldn't you say?"