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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 13


  The bracelet on his wrist twists tighter, tiny thorns cutting his skin. It’s magic, but he can’t remember putting it on. Soon he’s going to be extremely worried at his fading memory, but right now he’s just bone-tired.

  Clear morning sky stretches over the pasture, and there stand the villagers in clusters and lines, faces drawn, hopeful eyes wide on Arthur. He sees Haf Lewis first, ahead of the others, braid loose and mouth open in the start of a brilliant smile. He hears his name, and Rhun’s and Mair’s names, gasped and called in relief.

  “Mom,” Rhun whispers, leaning heavily against Arthur. He can’t finish. Nona Sayer doesn’t hear her son anyway.

  She, and all the others, have turned in shock to the thing—man, monster, devil, Arthur doesn’t know what to call it—they brought out with them.

  Alis Sayer cries out, “Baeddan!” and lifts her skirt to run down the pasture slope toward the emerging saints.

  Arthur has a nearly impossible time calling him that.

  Baeddan Sayer, twenty-sixth saint of Three Graces.

  Why can’t Arthur remember anymore how Baeddan is still alive? After ten years.

  The Bone Tree—it’s something about the Bone Tree, and the bargain.

  All Arthur remembers is that the story isn’t true. The Grace witches made it all up.

  Alis begins a stampede, and soon the four are surrounded by what seems like all of town, asking questions and pushing to be nearer, joyous and afraid, startled and loud. Arthur mutters into Rhun’s ear, “The closest to these black trees most of these cowards have ever been.”

  Rhun shakes his head, weary, avoiding Arthur’s gaze.

  Arthur hisses out through clenched teeth. It hurts that Rhun refuses him. What happened?

  Vines tighten around his arms, bending him back onto the altar. Arthur closes his eyes and knows this is worth it if Rhun lives. The devil presses down on his chest. Two of his ribs crack in a flash of pain and

  When Arthur swallows, a bruise presses his throat. His side aches.

  “Be careful,” Mairwen says, loud and commanding, even from her bloody mouth, split at the lip from a terrible kiss. Arthur remembers that, too, just as suddenly: Mairwen kissing the devil. But not why her hair is no longer than her chin, cut off in chunks, worse and messier than his own. She steps around the creature Baeddan, protecting him though he’s a head taller than she and nearly as broad as Rhun.

  With his arm about Rhun’s waist, Arthur can feel Rhun trembling; his knees are going to give out and Arthur very likely cannot hold him upright. What does Rhun remember?

  Alis Sayer stares at what’s become of her son.

  Baeddan ran into the forest ten years ago—they all remember it. They remember a brilliant, strong young man more charming even than Rhun, and proud and handsome. This is a shadow of what he once was, but recognizable to those who knew him best: It’s in the shape of Sayer eyes and crooked nose and jaw; it’s in the bearing and way Baeddan raises his eyebrows in hope.

  His mother hesitates. Her hands are out, reaching, but she doesn’t touch him, even when Mairwen shifts to the side so she can.

  Because Baeddan Sayer is as young as the night he ran in, but his skin is sallow, greenish and violet like bruises and death and the first signs of rot. Dark purple blood stripes his bare chest in many parallel furrows, like he put his own hands to his skin and clawed again and again. He wears the tattered remains of a leather coat and trousers, but is barefoot. His once-Sayer eyes are black through and through. Thorns grow out of his collarbones, hooked in two rows from his heart toward his shoulders. His knuckles are gnarled like tree bark. Antlers hide in his black hair, tangled and sharp, wrapping his skull in a crown.

  Staring at Baeddan, Arthur knows, though he can’t remember why, that Baeddan’s skin is cold, that the lost twenty-sixth saint murmurs old lullabies like threats and sometimes screams and the entire Devil’s Forest answers.

  “What happened last night?” Hetty Pugh demands, looking furiously back and forth between the survivors. Aderyn Grace is beside her, and there at the back of the crowd Lord Sy Vaughn waits, surprised.

  Arthur barks a single laugh, but it hurts his throat and jars his cracked ribs. Rhun shakes his head, lowering it as if he is too tired to hold it upright any longer.

  Mairwen puts her hand on Baeddan’s chest, stroking the skin between ragged wounds, and says gently, “We ran, we faced the devil, and we rescued him who has been trapped in the forest for a decade.”

  Questions from everyone compete for their attention and the world tilts under Arthur’s feet. He wonders if Mairwen remembers it, or is covering. Lying as a Grace witch is apparently born to do. He glances at Rhun to check the grayness of his cheeks and faint flutter of his lashes. Rhun releases him and steps forward.

  Mairwen tries to speak again, asking for calm, attempting to take control of the situation, and beside her Baeddan lifts a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. He opens his mouth and says to his mother, “I’m so hungry,” like a child’s sad plea.

  “Oh, baby,” Alis Sayer says, falling forward against her transformed son. Tears stain her face, and soon Baeddan’s blood, too, and the village presses closer. Some are laughing now, and calling up praise to God, pushing between Arthur and Rhun and Mairwen and Baeddan.

  “Stop.”

  The order thrills through the villagers, from the certain voice of Sy Vaughn.

  Quiet falls.

  “This began,” Vaughn says, arms still and outspread so his black cloak falls smooth as glass, “with illness and an unconventional Slaughter Moon. Before we celebrate, before we press too hard on these young people, we must assess the bargain.”

  Rhun slides a dark look at Arthur, then immediately walks up the pasture hill. His stride is less sure than usual, but he doesn’t appear to be near fainting. Arthur looks to Mair, who meets his gaze with a stare of her own, and the two of them nod slowly together. Mairwen curls her fingers around Baeddan’s wrist, and though he clearly wishes to stay with his mother, he does not venture a protest before going at Mair’s side to join Arthur in following Rhun.

  Three Graces follows behind.

  As he climbs the hill, thighs straining, injured ribs aflame, Arthur begins to feel better. The pain diffuses like an old, angry bruise. It’s working. The magic of the bargain. Whatever they did is working.

  black, empty eye sockets stare out from the skulls, bound with snaking vines to the massive trunk, and shoulder blades, rib cages, all the bones forming the armor of the Bone Tree and

  The sun is a burning disk in the east, warming the breeze; the smell of autumn ashes and bonfire and horse dung is as familiar as his own voice. Rhun is alive ahead of him, and the knowledge of it pulses in the binding on Arthur’s wrist: alive, alive, alive like a heartbeat. He senses Mairwen just behind and beside him, too, just as alive, just as connected. Their feet find a natural rhythm, and all three who ran into the forest walk across the hills of Three Graces at the same pace, tuned for the same song.

  Baeddan Sayer clicks his sharp teeth in time with their stride.

  Arthur is not afraid of anything, not even whatever it is he’s forgotten. He survived. He’s strong, and this morning he’ll be whatever he makes himself.

  Rhun leads them in a straightways path, not like the snaking dance twelve hours ago, but direct to the barley field, half razed and harvested. He arrows through the tall bearded grasses, ignoring how seeds shake loose. The sound is a rushing roar as Arthur and Mair go after, as all the town comes behind, boots and skirts transforming the barley into an angry sea.

  Reaching the place where he stopped his work three days ago, Rhun bends with a muffled groan of pain. Arthur startles forward but stops himself, knowing better than to help Rhun right now. But he stands behind Rhun with his knee near his shoulder, so if Rhun chooses, he can lean in. He doesn’t.

  “Check on Rhos and her baby too, and that sick horse,” Rhun says, rough and tired. “But the blight is gone.” He stands with a handful of h
ealthy barley, casting eyes out over the gathered crowd. “The blight is gone,” he says again.

  Sy Vaughn peers curiously at Rhun, and Arthur barely holds back a defensive sneer. Aderyn Grace says the ritual words: “So the Slaughter Moon has set, and seven more years are ours.”

  “Amen,” Mairwen tells her mother, and the villagers repeat it fervently. Baeddan Sayer tries the word too, dragging it out into an awkward curse instead. Mair puts her fingers over his lips.

  Rhun says, “It’s not right.”

  “What do you mean, Rhun Sayer?” asks Vaughn. The people of Three Graces press close.

  Mairwen answers, “It might not last, again. Because there’s no . . .” She winces and shakes her head as if she can’t remember. “Baeddan is here, and that means he didn’t die, but nor did he, exactly, survive. But his bargain held seven full years. He was this, and trapped in the forest, but we still don’t know why the Slaughter Moon happened fast now, after John Upjohn and—and—”

  “We need rest,” Arthur says. He meets Lord Vaughn’s mismatched eyes and then looks around at everybody.

  “Let’s get these young men food and rest, and our young witch, too,” Vaughn says, spreading a smile.

  It’s the usual way for the day after the run to go: The saint, if he survives, is taken home for rest and food, and when he’s recovered the town will welcome him with a less desperate feast in the square. A thing to quietly honor him, an opportunity to give him gifts or ask for additional blessings. Last time, with John Upjohn, it had been more than a week before the saint agreed to do it, and then he only sat on a stool, rigid and silent, while the people ate around him and gave their gifts to his mother or Mairwen for safekeeping.

  Arthur wonders what John Upjohn remembers about the devil.

  “What happened inside the forest?” asks Per Argall.

  “Tonight,” Arthur says, wanting time first with only Mairwen and Rhun. He wants to know if they remember more than he does, or less.

  Mair glances his way as the morning sun glints off the hair and thorns circling her wrist, and the small bone woven against the soft underside, right above her pulse. A similar delicate bone touches Arthur’s own fluttering pulse, and one tied desperately to Rhun’s as well. Where did these bones come from? He frowns.

  “Yes,” she agrees. “Tonight we’ll be well enough, and tell our story.”

  All around their friends, neighbors, cousins, families smile with relief, clasping hands, congratulating them and declaring wondrous predictions for the years to come. Nona Sayer touches her boy’s bloody brow, pats her hands against his curls, half tied back, half loose and flared in messy coils. She doesn’t smile, but her relief is palpable. She reaches for Arthur then, and more firmly than ever wraps an arm around his neck.

  Arthur grins and catches Rhun’s hollow gaze, then Mairwen’s wild one.

  The bargain is bound, for now.

  • • •

  MAIRWEN REFUSES TO ALLOW HERSELF to be separated from any of the boys. No one argues with her, except her mother hugs her tight. “You should have me with you too, while you rest.”

  “No, Mother,” Mair whispers. Aderyn smells like bonfire smoke and bitter flowers. Mairwen feels tears in her closed eyes. Her head throbs and her wrist, too, where the thorny binding pulls taught. After last night, she wants to sink into her mother’s lap and confess all her fading memories before they’re gone. But Baeddan is proof that the story the Grace witches tell is a lie, and Mair can’t be sure her mother didn’t know. Aderyn said the saint did not have to die, only choose to die, so perhaps this living monster Baeddan is exactly what her mother meant, and this was Rhun’s true fate.

  And what does Aderyn know about memory charms?

  With a small sigh, Aderyn touches the ragged ends of Mairwen’s chopped hair. “Will you tell me the story of this at least, daughter?”

  “I did it myself,” she says, anger dragging at her mouth because she can’t quite remember why. A gift? A spell? There is hair in the bracelet on her wrist. “I’m sorry about the dress,” she adds, glancing down at the stained, torn blue skirt of her gown. The bodice is streaked with drying blood—scarlet and violet both, splatter from all four of them.

  blood sprays her chest and neck, and she screams, “Stop!” Arthur falls to his knees, the devil—no, Baeddan—behind him

  Mair shudders, then turns it into a shake of her head. She winds her fingers through Baeddan’s cold ones. He jerks his hand closed, too tight.

  Nona Sayer leaves her hand on Rhun’s shoulder. “I’d have my boys in my home.”

  “Mom,” Rhun whispers. He takes her hand and kisses her palm, leaning his cheek against it. “I’m just going to rest, and I’d rather with people who . . .”

  “Who know,” Arthur finishes, when it’s clear Rhun won’t or can’t.

  It makes Mairwen search the crowd for John Upjohn. Does he know? Does he remember? Her heart grows thorns of anger sharp enough to make her gasp. Baeddan says, “No one knows,” and bares his fangs for the first time.

  The crowd gasps, even steady Nona Sayer.

  Sy Vaughn says, “What a pitiful creature,” with what sounds like true pity.

  Then Baeddan moans and covers his eyes with his hands, digs his fingernails into the skin of his forehead and drags down, cutting.

  “No,” Mairwen says. “Stop.”

  He stops.

  Mair turns her commanding gaze out across the people, using only her eyes to part the crowd until there’s a path for her to take with the others. “We have earned our rest,” she says to all. “Go hold your most beloved and give thanks the bargain is sealed. Tonight I will tell you our tale.”

  She holds her chin up as she leaves, Baeddan’s hand in hers, sticky with blood. She does not look for any other individuals, not even Haf, whom she longs to see. That will be for later, when her vision does not waver, when her mouth does not ache even as it heals. Baeddan is her priority, Baeddan and the devil.

  What happened to the old god of the forest?

  It’s her own voice in her mind, an echoing memory. She doesn’t know what it means. All she knows is: She trusts Baeddan, and this bracelet she wears—she made—is somehow binding the bargain. For now.

  The way home from the barley field is a narrow dirt path stepped through the sheep pasture by two hundred years of witches’ feet, and Mairwen keeps her heritage at the fore of her thoughts as she leads Baeddan and Arthur and Rhun across it. She feels strings of blood drawing thickly through her veins, curling and spinning like tendrils of vines inside her. She trips. Baeddan catches her elbow in his cold hand and presses her against his scoured chest.

  “Mair?” Arthur says with quiet urgency.

  She waves him away, giving herself a moment to lean on Baeddan. Her temple feels aflame against his neck, the entire side of her that touches him cooling as if she stands in shade. That brings a smile to the corner of her mouth, for how she used to stand half in and half out of the forest, warm in the sun and cool in the shade. She brought the forest out with her, the heart of it, the forest devil, and so wherever she goes now with him, she’ll have the shadows of the forest to block the sun.

  The vines coiling through her blood slide smoother, calmer.

  His breath rattles under her ear, and he touches his mouth to the crown of her head. Not like a kiss, more like a taste. Mair shivers and holds tighter to him. He is alive after ten years, and the heart of the bargain is a lie.

  “Come on,” Arthur mutters, pushing past the two of them. “I’m starving and Rhun is going to fall over.”

  Instead of arguing, Rhun only continues to walk, sliding Mairwen a worried glance. He includes his once-cousin too, and briefly his expression grows darker before he forcibly shutters it and passes.

  The Grace house sits empty, thatching gilded by the morning sun, walls smooth and white and the windowsills and door recently painted a cheerful red. Rhun had helped with the painting. They’d worked beside each other to the smell of baking
pie. Elderberry and apple, Rhun’s favorite, and the only thanks he’d accept.

  There are no baking smells now, but only the sharp scent of drying herbs as Rhun pushes through the door and holds it open for the others. Mair goes straight to the fire to wake it up, but the embers have died over the long night and she crouches to shove in more kindling. “Arthur?” she says, and he appears with his fire steel in hand.

  Arthur obliges Mairwen to set a spark in the hearth. She busies herself gathering the kettle and tea leaves while he gets the flames going. Rhun drops an armful of logs from the stack across the kitchen at Arthur’s feet, then goes to the loft ladder and climbs.

  “Rhun, wait,” Mairwen says.

  “I’m tired.”

  “We have a few things to discuss before we sleep, and before we face town again.”

  “I can hear you.” Rhun pulls himself up onto the loft and disappears against the sloping roof where Mairwen’s bedding tucks.

  Arthur’s jaw clenches as he grinds his teeth, and Mairwen is moved to touch his cheek.

  “Why did you do it? Why did you run in?” Mair asks, looking at Arthur over her shoulder. She is a piece of the wild forest: tangled vines of hair; beautiful dress torn and heavy at the hem with mud and water; insistent, dangerous eyes; lips parted; cheeks flushed. An ax loose in one hand like she’s the vengeful spirit in a terrible story.

  “Saving him is the only way to be better,” he says.

  “Better than him?” she whispers, shaking her head.

  “Better than myself.”

  He wants to ask why she followed him, but Arthur knows. Mairwen Grace belongs here.

  Mair and Arthur jerk apart. It had been his memory, but she remembers it now. Until she touched him, she’d forgotten the moment herself.

  “Is this the same as the altar in the forest?” Baeddan asks before she can say anything to Arthur. The devil drops to his knees at the fire, hands spread wide against the massive hearthstone.