The events of the day had gone in a way that was entirely unexpected. Sperra had thought herself to be the only human for miles and all at once a boy had appeared in her very clearing. And now she was teaching him the many things she had learned from the wilderness.
Shortly after showing Aeto to the stream, the bear had disappeared back to its den and Sperra had known, with a sense of sadness, that it would not be returning. Not while Aeto stayed. Unlike other humans, Sperra knew how much animals remembered.
As it turned out, Aeto had not eaten a full meal in several days and had therefore gorged himself on all the berries and plant life Sperra had been able to bring him. Then he had returned to the stream alone to bathe while Sperra was left to find a place for him. She may have been willing to reveal much of what she knew to him, but he was never going to take her "home."
Aeto returned to the clearing bare-chested with rivulets of water running down his torso. His skin was lightly tanned with the bands around his upper arms that all Lienid men bore. He didn't see a sign of Sperra but with his Grace, he knew he would be able to find her without problem.
How interesting the day had been. That morning, he had been on the trail of a bear that, once he killed it, would have provided him with enough food for at least a week. Not to mention he could sell the pelt or trade it for anything he needed. Then, instead of killing the bear as he'd hoped, he'd stumbled across a girl who looked half mad who lived alone in the forest and the bear happened to be her special pet. It was just his luck.
He shook his head, droplets of water flying from his hair. It was impossible to ignore the fact that the girl had been helpful. Even without the meat of the bear, he was better fed than he had been in ages. And cleaner, too. His shirt which was torn in many places was laid out in the sun by the stream.
"Do you really win everything you try?"
He spun around. She had appeared behind him suddenly and without warning. Her large eyes – one purple and the other dark blue – took in his state of undress and she flushed and looked away.
Aeto grinned to himself, wild as she may seem, he was now quite certain that Sperra had very little experience with men. Which had to be due to her secluded lifestyle. He was very aware that she was pretty. Maybe even beautiful.
"Yes," he answered simply.
Her eyes darted up to meet his and then flitted away again. "But that doesn't match with your own description of your Grace."
"That's because it has nothing to do with my Grace, I'm only very good at whatever I do," he answered. "Am I really so hideous you can't even look at me?"
Sperra's eyes flashed as she met his gaze and held it. When she was irritated her eyes seemed to blaze and color flooded her cheeks. She most definitely was beautiful.
"Despite what you seem to think about me, I do have a sense of morals," she hissed.
The back of Aeto's neck prickled. "What on earth is your Grace?"
The threatening expression disappeared from her face immediately. "I have an affinity for animals."
He suspected there was something she wasn't telling him but he didn't press it. He still knew nothing about this girl who lived in the woods. Why was she there? Why was she alone? How long had she been there? Why did she have only one ring?
"So," he said, settling down at the base of the largest tree in the clearing, "what's your story?"
She laughed softly, enchantingly. "I feel I have the right to hear your story first. After all, you came to me."
"I wasn't searching for you specifically," he pointed out. "You just happened to be in my way. But if you prefer to hear my exciting tale first, you may as well sit down. It's quite long."
Cautiously, she sank to the ground in front of him. The way she held herself, she looked as though she might dart away at any moment. Perhaps spending time only with animals had made her behave slightly as though she was one.
"Settled then?" Aeto asked. Then he was overwhelmed with a strange desire to tell her everything. And so he began.
"I was born the third child of eight to a man and a woman who made their living from the fur trade. My father was a hunter and my mother sold the furs and took care of the children. I am their only son so as soon as I was old enough, my father took me with him into the forest.
"I couldn't've been more than six or seven years old the first time I went with him. By that point my eyes had been settled for a few years but my Grace hadn't shown up. My mother worried it never would. She was always very concerned about that.
"The first night of our trip, I spotted a doe but she ran off before my father was able to kill her. I remember he put his hand on my head and told me we would just have to keep looking elsewhere. I didn't listen to him, of course. Without bothering to think – I was only seven or so, mind you – I set off by myself to track the deer.
"I have no idea how my parents managed to keep our home. My father had no skills for tracking animals. I doubt he knew it was possible before I showed him how. I can't imagine what was going through his mind when he looked around and noticed I was gone.
"Enough of that, soon enough it was obvious that I was exceptionally good at finding anything I'd seen once before. The people in the village would ask me to find items they'd lost. If they could describe them to me well enough I was usually able to do it without ever seeing the lost item first. As talented I was with finding whatever anyone had been foolish enough to misplace, I was much better at tracking living things.
"When I was twelve the poachers first appeared. The land was teeming with game around my home so naturally it drew them all.
"Originally, none of them were able to kill so much as a rabbit but before long they had learned about the success of my father and came to investigate."
He paused briefly.
"They had it figured out as soon as they saw me. It wasn't really hard to put together. Animals everywhere that were impossible to catch and one profitable man with a Graceling son. Naturally, the poachers kidnapped me and took me with them.
"They weren't horrible to me. For several years I was moved all over the seven kingdoms like the most prized hunting dog to ever trot. Hunters and poachers paid each other huge sums of money for me. I can't remember how many times I've changed hands, how many times I've been bought and sold. You can't imagine the feeling of knowing you were only here as long as no one raised your price.
"I probably shouldn't tell you how many animals I've helped men find and kill. You'd probably wish me dead, being the protector of all beasts and birds.
"I haven't only helped kill animals. You should know that. Powerful men used me to hunt their enemies. I alone am the reason…" He shuddered and refused to look up at her. "I've tried to forget these parts, but I feel – if you are going to help me – you have a right to know what you're keeping around.
"I once tracked a man to the middle of the mountains at the Sunder and Monsea border. His wife and children were with him –"
"Stop!" Sperra cried.
Aeto hadn't realized that he'd taken his knife from his belt and had been gripping the blade tightly in his agitation. He noticed the pain then and saw a trickle of blood leak out from between his fingers.
"That's enough of your history for now," she said firmly, getting to her feet. She reached her hand out towards him as though to comfort him but she let it fall instead to her side. "I'm sorry. I'm going to find something to use as a compress for your hand."
"Don't bother," he said brusquely, clambering to his feet. "It's not deep and I've had worse." He was in disbelief with himself, had he really been about to tell this girl everything?
"Just in case," she muttered and with that she turned and ran from him as though he were a monster.
No, no, no, no, NO! She was appalled with herself. She was a monster. She should have sent him away when she had the chance. Instead, she had let her curiosity outweigh her judgment and had used her Grace on him.
A sufficient distance from where she had left Aeto, Sperra sank to the ground trembling. She had made him want to share his story and he had unconsciously had fought back by injuring himself. Of course he wouldn't be aware that was what happened but she knew it was the truth all the same. Whenever she had used her Grace on a human the results had been the same. No matter what Aeto had been forced to do, he was nowhere near the demon she was.
The thought that she could still send him away made her hopeful for his sake. She could make him want to leave until he was out of the reach of her Grace. But with his own Grace, he would be able to find her wherever she went if he wanted to. Not that he would, she told herself sternly. A small part of her wanted to try, just to see if he would come back. She didn't dare ask herself if she wanted him to return or not.
Sperra had no idea what was happening and it was frightening her. Because of her Grace, she knew more about other people than just what they would tell her. After just a few days, it was as though she knew someone for weeks. When this had occurred previously, it had never bothered her. With Aeto she felt as though he was someone she had once known long before that she remembered well even though he had forgotten her. It was almost like a personal insult even though they had only met that morning under extraordinary circumstances.
Whatever was happening, it was scaring her. Why wouldn't she just send the Graceling boy away?
Her mind wandered to the way he had looked as he spoke, his head reclined against the trunk of the tree, eyes opening occasionally when he addressed her through the narrative, the way it was possible to see the smooth movement of his muscles under his tanned skin, the rise and fall of his chest.
She had to teach him what she knew and send him off as soon as she could. And she needed to give him reasons to never search for her again, for his own sake.