Death and the Lady
I.
    The year after the Great Death, the harvest was the best
that anyone could remember. The best, and the worst, because there were so few
of us to get it in; and the men who had lived through the plague all gone, even
to the fledgling boys, in the high ones’ endless wars. The few that were left
were the old and the lame and the witless, and the women. We made a joke of it
that year, how the Angel of Death took his share of our men, and Sire and Comte
the rest.
    We did what we could, we in Sency-la-Forêt. I had lost a
baby that summer, and almost myself, and I was weak a little still; even so I
would have been reaping barley with my sisters, if Mère Adele had not caught me
coming out with the scythe in my hand. She had a tongue on her, did Mère Adele,
and Saint Benedict’s black habit did nothing to curb it. She took the scythe and
kilted up her habit and went to work down the long rows, and I went where she
told me, to mind the children.
    There were more maybe than some had, if travelers’ tales
told the truth. Every house had lost its share to the black sickness, and in
the manor by the little river the dark angel had taken everyone but the few who
had the wits to run. So we were a lordless demesne as well as a manless one, a
city of women, one of the nuns from the priory called us; she read books, and
not all of them were scripture.
    If I looked from where I sat under the May tree, I could see
her in the field, binding sheaves where the reapers passed. There were children
with her; my own Celine, just big enough to work, had her own sheaf to gather
and bind. I had the littlest ones, the babies in their pen like odd sheep, and
the weanlings for the moment in my lap and in a circle round me, while I told
them a story. It was a very old story; I hardly needed to pay attention to it,
but let my tongue run on and watched the reapers, and decided that I was going
to claim my scythe back. Let Mère Adele look after the babies. I was bigger
than she, and stronger, too.
    I was growing quite angry inside myself, while I smiled at
the children and made them laugh. Even Francha, who never made a sound, nor had
since her family died around her, had a glint of laughter in her eye, though
she looked down quickly. I reached to draw her into my lap. She was stiff, all
bones and tremblings like a wild thing, but she did not run away as she would
have once. After a while she laid her head on my breast.
    That quieted my temper. I finished the story I was telling.
As I opened my mouth to begin another, Francha went rigid in my arms. I tried
to soothe her with hands and voice. She clawed her way about, not to escape,
but to see what came behind me.
    Sency is Sency-la-Forêt not for that it was woodland once,
though that is true enough; nor for that wood surrounds it, closing in on the
road to Sency-les-Champs and away beyond it into Normandy; but because of the
trees that are its westward wall. People pass through Sency from north to south
and back again. Sometimes, from north or south, they go eastward into Maine or
Anjou. West they never go. East and south and north is wood, in part the Sire
de Sency’s if the Death had left any to claim that title, in part common ground
for hunting and woodcutting and pig-grazing.
    West is Wood. Cursed, the priest said before he took fright
at the Death and fled to Avranches. Bewitched, said the old women by the fire
in the evenings. Enchanted, the young men used to say before they went away.
Sometimes a young man would swear that he would go hunting in the Wood, or a
young woman would say that she meant to scry out a lover in the well by the
broken chapel. If any of them ever did it, he never talked of it, nor she; nor
did people ask. The Wood was best not spoken of.
    I sat with Francha stiff as a stick in my arms, and stared
where she was staring, into the green gloom that was the Wood. There was
someone on the edge of it. It could almost have been a traveler from south or
east, worked round

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