Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 11

  And if he goes now, he’ll never know if Rhun survives. It would prey on him. So, he thinks bitterly, perhaps I’ll go the day after tomorrow. When it’s clear he’s not needed, when Rhun can’t give up the fight for not having him to come home to and Mairwen can’t accuse him of being at fault for it. He could survive without them both. He could.

  Arthur walks the path toward Sy Vaughn’s manor, slow but sure, and when he arrives the lord is there alone, standing before a small fire built up in the center of the stone yard between the manor’s gate and the tree line.

  The late-afternoon sun is brutal, cutting every inch of Vaughn’s attire bold and blacker than black should be in the daylight. It’s a black that comes from outside the valley, where merchants have access to better dyes and more expensive techniques. Supple as a mountain cat’s fur coat and glistening sleek, too. The lord’s hair is loose, falling in russet curls around his cheeks and neck. His hands clasp behind his back. When the lord hears Arthur’s bootstep, he turns. His eyes are black and gray—the left black, the right gray, or maybe that is only the way the sun hits half his face. He smiles with thin lips, and it occurs to Arthur that Lord Sy Vaughn is lovely. Striking and strong, sure, but also beautiful. Arthur wonders what it would have been like to have someone like this as a father, to protect and defend him when he was a child.

  “Arthur Couch,” Vaughn says calmly, gesturing for Arthur to join him. “Back so soon.”

  “That man has never been much of a father to me.”

  Vaughn nods, and something untwists inside Arthur just to be agreed with so simply and readily.

  “I have a question for you,” Vaughn says. He looks out over the valley, not at Arthur, and Arthur follows the young lord’s gaze. From here they can see down the tops of the trees, across Three Graces and all the barley fields, tiny white spots of sheep, the rolling hills of the pastures, all the way to the dark Devil’s Forest and there—there in the center, the pale Bone Tree with its scarlet crown.

  “I’m listening,” Arthur says when it becomes clear Vaughn is waiting for a response.

  “Why didn’t your mother take you with her?”

  Arthur bares his teeth. “How should I know?”

  Vaughn hums a single, low note of acknowledgment.

  “She didn’t want me. She wanted a daughter.”

  “It seemed to me that she wanted a child guaranteed to live.”

  “Then of course she didn’t take me with her: I might’ve died a dozen ways outside the valley.”

  “Yes. I’ve seen many terrible ways for a child to die out in the world. But if I had a daughter, I think I would do anything to keep her safe, and if that failed, anything to remain with her.”

  “And if you’d had a son?” Arthur challenges.

  Vaughn smiles again. “It would be an honor for him to be a saint.”

  “Someday maybe you’ll find out if you’re right. You’ll have to marry and have an heir to take over this place.”

  “I suppose so. Any suggestions for a willing lady?”

  Arthur waves his hands, aggravated with the turn of conversation. “I want to run, sir. I need to. Give this to me. Let it be me, not Rhun.”

  Vaughn’s gray and brown eyes flick up and down Arthur’s face. “You’ll have your turn to plead your case shortly.”

  “Let me plead it now. I’m worthy—let me prove it. Show you. I can win this.”

  “Win?” Vaughn’s eyebrows fly up, and he laughs softly. “Oh, Arthur Couch. There is no way to win. It is a sacrifice, not a game. It must be done for love.”

  “I can do it,” he grinds out.

  But the lord says, “No.”

  Arthur strides away with a frustrated cry. He crouches and his hunting coat flares around him exactly the way he remembers skirts billowing out. Putting his fists to his forehead, he seethes, trying to breathe evenly, trying to find an argument that will earn him the right to run tonight. To prove he’s not more flawed than any other potential saint, including Rhun Sayer.

  It occurs to him in a terrible flash that he could tell Sy Vaughn right now what he’s kept secret for three years: Rhun Sayer is in love with a boy.

  And in the next instant, a worse truth reveals itself to Arthur: He will never be the best, because he’s not even good. No one good would ever, even momentarily, consider what he just considered.

  He promised himself, ten years ago, to someday run into the forest and offer the devil his heart, but Arthur understands now that the devil ate his heart a long time ago.

  • • •

  AN HOUR BEFORE THE SUN sets, all the potential runners, their fathers, and every man or boy in Three Graces older than thirteen gathers around the fire at Sy Vaughn’s manor. Rhun’s eyes are wide as he stares at the heavy blue sky overhead, taking in all he can. His father’s eyes shine with unshed tears, but he smiles proudly, his arm around his son.

  “You don’t have to do this, son. Not for me, not for your mother. We’re proud of you already,” Rhun the Elder said, just before they returned to the manor.

  But Rhun made this decision years ago.

  “Where’s Arthur?” he asks Lord Vaughn when he and the others step forward for the final choosing.

  Vaughn says, “He returned to the valley, I suppose to lick his wounds.”

  Rhun glances toward Gethin Couch, who appears as surprised as everyone. He’s never liked Arthur’s father, which is as near to despising a person as Rhun can get. Rhun the Elder frowns apologetically at his son, for Rhun had asked if they might take Arthur with them on their afternoon fast and Rhun the Elder suggested it would be important for Arthur and Gethin to come to terms if Arthur was to have a chance at being the saint.

  “I should get him,” Rhun says, starting for the path, but a grumble from the collected men halts him.

  “Stay,” Lord Vaughn says. “Or forfeit your chance as Arthur Couch has.”

  Blowing air through his teeth, Rhun stays. He takes his place in the line of boys, sending them all a supportive smile. Per, and Darrick Argall, the Parry cousins, and Bevan Heir.

  Vaughn removes a glass vial from his coat pocket and with great ceremony dumps it into the fire.

  A gout of flame screams up, and the smoke turns as white as the moon, as white as the Bone Tree.

  The signal to the women: We have begun.

  Rhun breathes the smoke, finding it softer than he expected, comforting. His lighthearted mood remains, tinged only by wishing Arthur hadn’t gone. But they had their moment in the woods this morning, and that is all Rhun needed. This is his time, his own moment to be what he’s always been meant for.

  Lord Vaughn calls, “Tell me, Per Argall, what makes you the best?”

  Per clears his throat and says hesitantly, “I’m young and fast—the fastest. I . . . yes.”

  “Tell me, Bevan Heir, what makes you the best?” Vaughn asks.

  Bevan, nineteen and thick in shoulder and head, says, “I have a plan, to alternate running with hiding. I can play this game with our devil, and make the night of the Slaughter Moon worthwhile.”

  And so Sy Vaughn calls on every potential runner to have their say. Darrick Argall claims to be the bravest and kindest. Ian Parry says he’s practiced every day of his life. Marc Parry tells the men his mother has always known it, and dreamed he would be the saint, and he would like to be everything his mother dreams he can be.

  When it is Rhun’s turn to say what makes him the best, he shrugs and only offers, “Nothing but my heart, sir.”

  It is so earnestly done, the gathered men and boys nod along, and because Arthur is not present to sneer, nobody does.

  • • •

  THE GRACE WITCH ARRIVES IN a beautiful blue and cream dress, with a wreath of bones and yellow flowers around her neck, and a heavy horse skull cradled in her arms. Her cheeks are bright from the exertion of hiking here with the heavy thing, and bright from hope and fury and love. She smells like a bitter salve she stirred under her mother’s instruction, bled into,
and with which she anointed herself.

  Rhun waits at the fore with Sy Vaughn.

  When she sees him, her lips part and she murmurs the litany of saints. “Bran Argall. Alun Crewe. Powell Ellis. John Heir. Col Sayer. Ian Pugh. Marc Argall. Mac Priddy. Stefan Argall. Marc Howell. John Couch. Tom Ellis. Trevor Pugh. Yale Sayer. Arthur Bowen. Owen Heir. Bran Upjohn. Evan Priddy. Griffin Sayer. Powell Parry. Taffy Sayer. Rhun Ellis. Ny Howell. Rhys Jones. Carey Morgan. Baeddan Sayer. John Upjohn.”

  Together, everyone says, “Rhun Sayer.”

  She sets the horse skull on the ground and unwraps the blessed and embroidered shirt. She glances up at Rhun, who, with the help of his father, removes jacket and shirt. The Grace witch steps forward and lifts the new shirt over his head. As he fills it out, she whispers his name again and again. The men join her, his name becoming an invocation, a hiss, a wind all its own.

  The witch unties the wreath from her neck and wraps it around Rhun, then leans up onto her toes to kiss his mouth as she laces it at the back of his neck. Hidden in the flowers is the disarticulated jaw of the sacrificed horse. If the witch kisses the saint with a little more passion than usual, none make comment.

  She unstoppers a metal box tied to her belt and smears her thumb in the dark ointment, then touches it to Rhun’s lips and forehead. A bitter smell rises fresh.

  Mairwen stands back, arms spread, full of nerves and fire. Rhun’s father helps him back on with his coat and hunter’s hood, but then Vaughn lifts the horse skull and sets it over the hood, hiding the last dark flash of Rhun’s eyes from her. She pants in shallow gasps as the Parry cousins put a cape of horsehair over Rhun’s shoulders, and Bevan Heir ties the tail so it spills like a crest down his back. Here Rhun is fierce and frightening, half man, half beast, and evening has arrived.

  The horse skull grins down at her, one half of it caught in the burning light of the dying sun. Orange and pink bleed down that west-facing side, catching on the blocky teeth in the back of the skull. The light sharpens the long nasal bone into a dagger and blackens the eye cavities. The bottom jawbone hangs down from rope against Rhun’s chest like a plate of armor, crushing some flowers in the wreath. He is hardly knowable, but she does know that leather jerkin, the deep oxblood of his hunting hood, his plain brown leather bracers. She knows those hands, and the thighs, too, wrapped in trousers, hiding the skin she touched and dressed herself only hours ago.

  Mair’s breath catches.

  The saint steps to her and holds out his hand. The pale edge of the saint shirt peeks out from his jerkin. Her charm. The entire valley’s charm. Mair finds his eyes, only a glint in the shifting shadows beneath the skull, and gives him the most meaningful glare she can. Survive, she mouths. No matter what.

  Taking her by the waist, he tilts back his head so some rays of light can cut beneath the long skull and across his mouth. I love you, he mouths back.

  Then Rhun tosses his head like a horse, prancing and spreading his arms. Inviting the Grace witch to join him.

  He holds out his hand again and Mairwen takes it. Their fingers weave together, and Rhun leads her away.

  • • •

  TOGETHER, THE SAINT AND THE witch dance and skip down the mountain, breathless. The men follow, murmuring his name, clapping their hands, Lord Vaughn joining at the end.

  Together, the saint and the witch knock on every door in Three Graces, calling the town to join them too, to dance in a long, twisting line toward the Devil’s Forest for the Slaughter Moon. Through houses and gardens, along cobbled alleys, through the square they weave, trailing a snake of people behind.

  Around Three Graces in a sunwise circle they dance as the sun falls farther and farther, then to the pasture hill. Behind them everyone else yells and cheers, sings and weeps and prays as Rhun the saint leads them around and around the fire made by Aderyn Grace and the women, through bloody smoke where this stallion’s organs burn. Mair and Rhun do not laugh or shriek with the rest.

  The entire moon crawls free of the dark mountain horizon, and the saint stops.

  The town pours around them into a massive crescent, a shield between them and Three Graces.

  Together, Rhun and Mairwen face the forest.

  It’s a black wall, silent and forbidding, edged in pale moonlight.

  The Bone Tree thrusts up from the center like a silver salmon leaping into the air. The ghostly crown is stark and compelling, missing every single scarlet leaf. They’ve all fallen during the day.

  Rhun tightens his grip on Mair’s hand, then releases it. With both strong hands, he lifts the skull crown off his head and sets it upon a staff rammed deep into the hill beside the bonfire. The skull settles there with a slow nod, one empty eye toward the forest, one toward the town.

  Rhun Sayer the Elder walks to his son with a quiver and strung bow. He helps Rhun into them both, and his cousin Brac Sayer offers Rhun his axes, which he puts to his belt. Braith Bowen gives him a dagger for his boot.

  That’s all. Mair expected Arthur to give Rhun something, but she sees him nowhere.

  A worm of disappointment eases through her guts. Where is he? He belongs here. With them.

  Rhun glances at Mair, smiles bravely, and nods like the horse skull nodded. She readies herself to step forward just as a murmur ripples through the arc of townsfolk.

  A dark figure dashes below them, from the direction of town, around the curve of the pasture hill.

  Arthur Couch stands halfway between the Devil’s Forest and the crest of the hill where the bonfire blazes, where the horse saint’s skull nods, where the people of Three Graces wait to offer their son to the sacrifice.

  His spiky pale hair catches the last warm traces of daylight.

  Mairwen’s heart beats hard enough to thrust out of her chest and her toes tingle in her boots. Somebody whispers, “What is he doing?”

  Arthur turns to face up the hill. His bow and quiver poke over his shoulder, and the glint of long knives mark his hips. He wears a black hunting hood, an old leather coat, trousers, and boots. Arthur puts both his hands out and waves madly at them all.

  A strangled cry breaks from Aderyn Grace and Rhun grunts wordlessly.

  Mairwen thinks Arthur looks coiled and sharp, dangerous and ready to face down the devil. She flexes her hands into fists and steps forward. Though she can’t see his eyes clearly, she knows the moment Arthur fixes his attention on her. Her palms ache, and she feels hot, then cold, then terrified, because Arthur doesn’t have the shirt. He can’t go in. He’s not anointed.

  “But I’m the blessing in between,” she whispers. Her blood. Her heart.

  Behind Mairwen, a knowing, panicked look flashes in her mother’s eyes. But Aderyn has never called her daughter’s name where the devil might hear it.

  Haf Lewis is not yet so wise, and when Mairwen leaps forward, grabs one of Rhun’s axes, and takes off down the hill, Haf screams her best friend’s name.

  Mairwen runs, thrusting hard against the skirt of her dress, gasping against the tightness of her bodice.

  She pushes harder, boots thudding her heartbeat into the earth.

  Her name becomes a cry behind her, a swarming prayer, as she careens downhill toward Arthur.

  Their eyes meet for a flash, and she holds out her empty hand.

  Arthur slaps his palm to hers, and together they run for the trees.

  Haf Lewis has never been so afraid in her life.

  Her best friend vanished into the forest only moments ago, and already a piece of her heart feels torn away.

  Mairwen will survive, Haf tells herself. She’s a Grace witch and the daughter of a saint. The forest won’t take her. As long as Mair keeps running, keeps all her prickly pieces out like daggers, like a shield, she will survive until morning. She has to.

  At the fore of the townspeople, Haf has a perfect view of the black wall of trees, of the shivering canopy lined with moonlight. She’s gone out of her way to never imagine what hides beneath all those shadows, what monsters might
swarm the roots of the Bone Tree. Hard enough to live so near it and listen to Mairwen wonder. If Haf let her nightmares loose, she’d run so far away from this valley she’d never find her way home again.

  Beside her Rhun Sayer murmurs something she can’t quite hear. Eyes on the forest, he walks slowly but with absolute purpose down the pasture hill.

  “Rhun,” says Nona Sayer.

  He acknowledges nothing, but continues on at the same pace until he’s at the edge of the trees. He pauses, but doesn’t look back over his shoulder, as if he knows looking back would hold him in place.

  Rhun follows his friends into the Devil’s Forest.

  Haf understands, but it turns her heart even colder.

  Conversation flares at her back, louder than the bonfire. Haf watches her shadow; flames cast it long and flickering and strange toward the forest. She swears she will not close her eyes until the sun appears. Lowering to kneel on the crisp grass, Haf arranges her skirt carefully around herself as a distraction. She’ll need more than that, though, to make it the nine hours until dawn.

  “Be calm,” Lord Vaughn commands, and the fearful talk quiets.

  “Our part of the bargain is intact,” Aderyn Grace says, almost too softly. But they all hear.

  Vaughn adds, “Hold vigil, as you—as we—always hold vigil. There is no more any of us can do. When the sun rises, we will see.”

  After a moment’s pause, someone begins to recite the litany of saints.

  One by one, the townspeople join in, until the prayer is a billowing cloud of hope lifting off the hill. Haf moves her lips along with the prayer, hands folded in her lap, eyes on the forest.

  Her sister Bree brings her a mug of beer, but Haf waves it away. The beer would only make her tired. Hot tea would be better, or plain water, she thinks, though truly she hardly knows; Haf has never kept vigil before. Seventeen years ago she’d been a babe in arms. Ten years ago she left with her parents after the snake dance, after Baeddan Sayer ran in. She’d only been eight, and her mother easily convinced they should spend the night by their own hearth with little four-year-old Bree. Three years ago she tried to stand with Mairwen, but halfway through the night her eyes drooped heavy. She paced to stay awake, and pinched her cheeks, but several hours before dawn she fell asleep leaning against the pasture wall only to wake in sudden terror at the sight of John Upjohn’s bloody wrist.