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Strange Grace 12
Haf pictures Mairwen covered in blood.
• • •
THE WIND INSIDE THE FOREST whispers, Grace, Grace, Grace.
Mairwen, running, hears her name, and Arthur flings himself before her as if to protect her from ghosts. But the forest is everywhere around them: listening, stalking, laughing.
Grace, Grace, Grace, it says, and the tiny monsters chatter it, goblins and bobbing spirits, sharp-toothed birds and bone boys all revel in the sound of the name.
The devil bides his time, stretching his jaw in a massive, lazy yawn, crouched at the base of the Bone Tree. He will go after them soon.
Them. It is an odd thing, but he smells more than a saint, and the forest is alive with that old name.
• • •
HAF SITS SO STILL ONLY wisps of her hair move in the breeze and the heat from the fire. Her braids are expertly crafted, and only a few long tendrils have fallen, exactly where Haf meant them to when she wove it up this afternoon. She wanted to look as pretty as Mairwen in the beautiful blue dress. Haf even daydreamed about her own wedding dress, nearly finished and folded in the trunk at the foot of her mother’s bed. It’s a warm summery green and embroidered, too, like Mair’s, but without the rich silk sleeves. Haf had insisted on sewing loops and ribbons into the skirt so she could raise it to her calves after the ceremony, in order to dance all day and night with her family and friends and new husband. This spring, after the first bloom. Mairwen has to be there. In her heart, Haf feels absolutely certain she cannot ever marry without Mairwen to chalk blessings and kiss her cheek and find perfect delicate sparrow bones to weigh down the ends of her wedding veil.
A man’s boot appears near her hip, worn and dark brown in the firelight. He kneels and touches her shoulder gently. Haf’s eyes flicker to his—though the fire at his back turns him into a dark silhouette and fine features are impossible to determine, she knows it’s Ifan. As if summoned by her slowly spiraling dread.
Not even this rare touch from her soon-to-be-husband comforts her.
She covers his hand with hers, though, curling her small fingers around his, and he accepts the invitation to sit with her.
“Are you warm enough?” he asks in his plain way. She nods quickly, shallow little nods highlighting her fear. She can’t stop thinking about Mairwen hurt, bleeding—things she’d never imagined before. Mairwen in the devil’s clutches, or forced to watch Rhun or Arthur or both of them die. She imagines the devil himself, like in the story: monstrous and strange, part forest creature, part man, with handsome eyes and face, but fangs and cloven hooves and horns.
How does anyone who loves the saint survive the vigil hours? she wonders. It would’ve been bad enough to hold Mair’s hand all night long, both of them hoping after Rhun Sayer. Haf prepared for the past two days to be a solid force of friendship and love for Mair, prepared little stories she recalled of their childhood to distract her. She never thought to prepare herself.
• • •
AT FIRST RHUN MOVES FAST, tracking his friends easily, for Mair’s skirt tears and drags, leaving a path he could’ve followed as a child. Moonlight snakes through the lattice of branches overhead, casting shadows in odd places. He tracks them to a deer path cutting through a scarlet hedge with thin leaves as red as blood and twice as tall as him. It emerges at a wide, shallow creek with an opposite bank of flat stones. The moon’s reflection is a bright oval, a shivering fungus on the water.
It’s too quiet. Besides the slow murmur of water and whispering breeze, Rhun hears nothing.
Fear seeps down his spine.
He crouches at the glint of water on stone—a footprint, a smear of wetness angling toward the wall of black trees. He jogs that way, eyes everywhere for further sign. There’s a skid in the ground cover. Rhun heads deeper into the silent forest.
Behind him something snickers. He spins, notching an arrow. He draws it to his cheek and aims along his sight. Darkness, shadows on shadows. Columns of black trees.
The wind twists through the empty branches.
“Mairwen!” he yells. Silence swallows the name.
“Mairwen, Mairwen!” hiss back a hundred tiny voices, from every angle, all around. Above and below.
Rhun whirls, arrow aimed, left then right, sweeping upward in an arc.
He is alone.
He slides the arrow home in the quiver over his shoulder and moves on.
• • •
THE MOON RISES.
Haf draws Ifan Pugh’s hand to her cheek and presses. A tear slips from her eye, smearing against his pale knuckles.
“Summertime,” he whispers, a name he’s called her once or twice, and wraps his arm around her. Haf wants nothing so much as to hide her face in his shoulder, let him be a shield between her and the fear and the forest. But she can’t. She has to hold this vigil. Mairwen would, and Haf will be brave for her friend.
Around them the crowd shifts. Some keep warm by stomping, others walk wide circles around the pasture. Still others trade out with husbands or wives or sisters or fathers to watch little ones back home in the cottages. They talk softly when they talk at all, and though they do not eat, they sip beer and steep tea near the hot feet of the fire. Wind sings too sweetly through the valley, and the moon is too bright.
“Do you hold it against me, that I never was a true candidate?” Ifan asks, low in her ear.
Startled, she turns her head away from the forest. His eyes are inches from hers, tight at the corners and sad. She says, “No, oh no, I never.”
He studies her for a moment. The tension relaxes a bit from his face. Firelight teases the wisps of dark hair framing his forehead, and the tip of his narrow nose. Haf has always liked to look at him, though she never was struck by any handsomeness or beauty. He is simply pleasant, and kind, and was hesitant enough to create a bit of attraction between them. Three years ago he was twenty-three, a bit too old to run, and the sainting before that he was sixteen, but while he competed with the others, he’d been as likely a saint as sweet Per Argall. From things her mother and aunts have said, Ifan was competent, just not invested. Unusual for a boy in Three Graces to not have an intense relationship with the sainthood. Haf has always liked unusual things—she is best friends with Mairwen Grace, after all.
“You are what you are,” she whispers to him and, on a whim, kisses him.
His mouth is dry and cool, but he brings a hand up. His thumb presses just at the corner of her lips, and his fingers spread along her cheek and jaw, holding her carefully.
Faraway in the forest, a scream lifts out of the darkness.
Haf startles away, clamoring to her feet. Ifan joins her, as do a line of villagers, breath held all.
The scream dies away, and after her heart beats again, tiny black shadows dart up from the canopy, tilting like a furious flock of birds.
• • •
ARTHUR SPINS, PANTING. THE MARSH glimmers with tiny lights, teasing him. He hates being alone in this forest—harder to pretend he’s not scared without Mairwen to lie to.
Visions dance before him, moonlit and wavering, all rotting faces and leering, broken grins. His mother hangs by the neck from a bent tree, eyes open and caught on his. She laughs and hisses, “To be born a boy in Three Graces is to be as good as dead.”
“Pretty girl,” cries a ghastly demon, splashing up from the wet marsh. Its face is like his father’s, its voice hot as Arthur’s own.
He knows—he absolutely knows—this is a trick. The forest wants to drive him wild, confuse him, wear him out with fear.
“You’re no saint,” the forest spirits accuse him. “We taste it in your heart.”
Bone boys giggle and the marsh lights wink in joining merriment. “No-saint, never-saint,” says the voice of the devil.
“I could be,” Arthur says, unable to resist any argument.
“Not you, not in that dress, not without even a mother to believe in you!”
Flowers pelt him from above, sticking to his cheeks and s
melling like blood.
Arthur scrapes them off his skin and yells, “What I am is not for you to decide!”
• • •
SILENCE FALLS HEAVY OVER THE vigil. The bonfire snickers.
The moon continues to rise.
Haf thinks about Mairwen and Arthur and Rhun together, how she’s never felt a nuisance to them or as if she didn’t fit into their triad, though most would expect her to. Arthur told her that she should, but she’s good at not being offended by Arthur Couch, because she was there the day they all realized Lyn Couch was a son of her mother, not a daughter, and she remembers the way his eyes teared and he tore at his hair. She remembers wondering about her own body, and talking with her mother about what makes boys and girls, and her mother’s loose answers that never seemed to explain much of anything except pregnancy. She even remembers trying once to say so to Arthur, that there wasn’t much difference, and Arthur’s face turned red, his fists raised, and he followed with the scathing answer that of course a girl can’t understand something that matters so much.
She suspects there’s nothing that will crush Arthur down tonight, unless the devil calls Arthur a girl.
And Rhun Sayer is perfect, so perfect he’s like Three Graces itself, not a person. Haf loves him the way she loves the valley, the way she loves springtime. Mair, after playing the messenger between Haf and Ifan for three weeks, in a game of proposals and passing compliments, had told Haf their courtship dance was ridiculous and she was grateful everyone simply assumed she and Rhun would marry someday. (As if there would be no saint.) “But do you love him?” Haf asked, and Mair said, “I love him best because I love the part of him nobody else sees: that great, empowering sin of pride.”
Oh, but Mairwen, so sharp and ferocious! She is proud as Rhun and hot as Arthur.
Haf hugs herself tightly.
The moon passes its peak, but hours still remain.
• • •
THE SAINT, THE WITCH, AND the angry boy crash together again—finally!—relief and terror uniting them. Blood mars Mairwen’s chin, Rhun limps, and Arthur is soaking cold and wet. They stare, standing in a triangle, and listen to the shuffle, crack, growl of the devil.
“He’s just behind me,” Mairwen whispers, eyes wide with exhilaration.
• • •
ADERYN GRACE STANDS WITH HETTY Pugh, their arms wound about each other, faces to the forest.
The Sayer clan is spread like a recalcitrant flock of sheep along the slope, huddled in twos and threes, hands clasped in prayer or just together, passing bottles of wine and whispering to each other.
There is Sy Vaughn at the fire, one boot up on a thick log. He watches the forest with a pinched brow, seeming so much older than he is.
John Upjohn stands alone, and if Mair were here she’d go to him, so that’s what Haf does. She touches Ifan’s hand to let him know. The grass swishes against her skirts as she walks, and there’s frost on the tips of her boots. She says nothing as she joins John.
Cat Dee lists sleepily on her stool, and to Haf’s surprise Gethin Couch paces in short lines back and forth, frowning so deep he probably will never smile again.
She sees her own family, her parents and two sisters, her cousin and nephews and nieces.
Soon after midnight, Haf realizes when the people of Three Graces recite the litany of saints, they’ve added not only Rhun’s name, but Arthur’s and Mairwen’s as well.
It gives her a chill, so cold the tears might freeze in her eyes. Mairwen the witch can’t die, but a saint could—that’s what saints are for. She shakes her head, whispers, “No.”
John Upjohn turns his haunted eyes to her. “I’d have them take my name out of it too,” he says.
• • •
“I WON’T LET YOU DIE, RHUN Sayer.”
“I don’t want to die, Arthur Couch!” Rhun yells it with such violence he realizes it’s true.
The devil laughs, fangs gleaming, and the boys run.
• • •
HAF DRINKS A BIT, FINALLY, and walks to keep her limbs warm, clapping her hands together, snuggling deeper into her shawl. She lets Ifan stand behind her, chest against her shoulders and head, and put his arms around her. He holds tightly, fingers moving against her arms in a gentle massage, and she feels passion stretched between each movement. Haf told Mairwen this morning her Ifan wouldn’t be so polite as Rhun had been if she showed up half naked in his bedroom, though it had mostly been a guess. She has a wild idea now to drag Ifan to a secluded meadow and try it, in Mair’s honor. Her cheeks flush at the thought of grass against her bottom and Ifan’s hands on her breasts, and so does her belly, so does the crook of her thighs, and she leans back into him, entirely aflame.
The forest is black and silent.
Haf hears her heartbeat thrumming in her ears.
The moon sinks.
• • •
THE DEVIL HOLDS OUT A broken rowan doll. “You gave this to me.”
Mairwen gasps, blood on her mouth and under her nails: She sees through the devil, past mottled skin and terrible scowl, past thorns and scars and teeth, past years of torment and hunger, to what remains of his heart.
• • •
“I HOPE,” IFAN SAYS SOFTLY, MOUTH against Haf’s tumbling crown of braids, “Rhos and her baby are well in the morning. I hope, because the Moon was early, that it does not matter three went into the forest.”
She nods, crossing her arms over her chest in order to hold his hands.
The bonfire settles, and Haf settles too, into a daze of blurred memories and hopes as raw as starlight.
Wind blows out of the northern mountains. It raises a hiss from the forest, tossing leaves together, and the long white claws of the Bone Tree creak.
• • •
RHUN BURSTS INTO THE GROVE of the Bone Tree, falls to his knees.
The tree is a mammoth creature of striped bark, elegant, arcing branches, naked of leaves. The moonlight turns it silver, and it throbs and shifts like it’s breathing. But that is not why he cannot look away.
Melded to the trunk are human bones. Femurs and vertebrae, narrow fingers reaching for him, delicate forearms, hips and sharp shoulder blades jutting out like butterfly wings. And black-eyed skulls, mouths gaping, woven to the tree by wormlike vines. One hangs at exactly Rhun’s height, and he stares at its empty dead gaze.
Horror unlike any he’s imagined sinks through the saint, and he trembles.
There are twenty-five skulls on the Bone Tree.
• • •
IN THE FINAL HOUR—SHE hopes it is the final hour—Haf pinches her wrists to stay alert, to keep her attention bright as the lightening sky.
Her legs are stiff, her neck aches, and her eyes are burning and dry. Ifan cradles her hips, breathing evenly against her hair, relaxed as if he dozes even as he stands at her back. It brings to life a well of tenderness in her, though her brow is bent with anxiety, her heart hurts. She longs to walk nearer, to be right at the edge when the sun breaks in the east. Nearby, Aderyn Grace has put her knees and hands to the earth, fingers dug into the grass. The witch’s back bends, her head lolls forward, and all her brambling dark hair—so like Mairwen’s—falls as a veil. She’s singing a soft song, a hymn it sounds like, with words like “God” and “mother” and “everlasting.”
• • •
THE DEVIL DANCES AS HE binds the boy to the altar. So it goes, so it always, always goes: The devil has won and this heart belongs to the forest.
• • •
THE MOON TOUCHES THE WESTERN horizon.
Haf looks right, where half the sky has painted itself pastel, where the stars are vanishing, and with them her fear. A solid, weighty thing grows in her chest, like hope but colder. The time comes, the moment, the answer to nearly ten hours of prayer.
The townsfolk keeping vigil stir and shift.
The sun reaches its fingers to the edge of the trees, casting pink light along the roots and trunks, destroying that liminal plane wher
e Mair liked to tease and play. Every single person strains forward, stepping nearer, and every single person in the valley is surprised.
Arthur Couch emerges first: fitting as he was the first to vanish. He drags with him Rhun Sayer, limping and near-broken and barely able to stand. Rhun leans on Arthur as if Arthur is the only thing in the world keeping him alive.
A whimper of relief ricochets through the crowd, but they hesitate; they hardly move, waiting still, until there—just there, behind the boys, walking in as painful and slow a manner, comes Mairwen Grace in a ruined blue dress.
But she is not alone.
Arthur has never been so exhausted in his entire life, but the light of dawn piercing his eyes like nails is a welcome pain. Sometime during the night, he stopped expecting to survive. That he has, that Rhun’s weight pulls down at his aching shoulders as the two of them limp out of the Devil’s Forest together, is a surprise.
He’ll never admit that, though, not now that he’s managed it, now that he spent the night running from the devil and emerged victorious. And his friends are alive too.
Never mind there are already pieces he can’t recall, as if every dragging step out of the forest pulls him away from what happened. From what he did.
But the sun is a star rising in Arthur’s chest: bright, pure, full of clarity. Arthur Couch knows who he is after last night.
Even if he doesn’t quite remember why.
He winces as he steps fully into the sun, grips tighter around Rhun’s waist as they pause in the warmth. Behind him the forest looms, and he hears Mairwen’s shallow breathing, and the deeper, rattling breath of that thing Rhun would not leave without. It will cost them, Arthur knows somehow, but everything came with a price last night, and everything that comes next will have one too.