Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 14

  “Yes,” Mairwen says, though she’d forgotten that, too.

  Baeddan lays himself against the stone, his lips moving in a quiet song she can’t quite hear. It’s awkward to reach over him and hang the kettle, but she manages. “Will you get water, Arthur?” she asks. “We need to wash.”

  He goes outside, and Mair continues preparing a meal. She finds cheese and dry mutton, ignoring the strange ache in her bones and the dragging weight of blood in her veins. Her collarbone, too, blooms with bruising that seems to grow larger instead of healing. She needs to remain focused, to get through eating and cleaning, and they need to speak together, compare memories. However meager they might be.

  Food spread on the table, she calls Rhun. He doesn’t answer. She’s about to climb up to fetch him when Arthur shoves the front door open and says angrily, “She won’t go.”

  Startled, Mairwen meets Haf Lewis’s wide eyes. She’s carrying a bundle of clothes. Haf shakes her head helplessly, and her gaze sinks to Baeddan splayed like the sacrifice he was against the wide hearth. “Mairwen,” she says, strained.

  And Mairwen is before her in an instant. She throws her arms around Haf and Haf hugs back so very tightly. Arthur makes a disgusted sound and stomps past, sloshing the water in his bucket. But Mairwen doesn’t care at all. Like this house, Haf is familiar.

  • • •

  RHUN STARES UP AT THE thatch from the floor of the loft instead of the bedding. He’s too filthy to touch quilts and the soft straw mattress. This slatted wooden floor is good enough.

  Branches as thick as his wrist frame the roof into place, stripped of bark and polished a lovely rich brown. Layers of wheat-straw spread in bundles muffle sounds from outside, holding warmth in. Though most of the ceiling has been sealed with limewash, this section of the loft is uncovered thatch. It seems older for it, darker, full of tiny hidden secrets.

  Below, Arthur argues with Mairwen over how long to steep tea and how thick she’s spreading butter on bread and even over Haf Lewis being allowed to stay.

  It should amuse Rhun and aggravate him, but he feels everything from a dull distance. Even Arthur’s spikes.

  Rhun closes his eyes and glimpses the dark forest: leaves flashing past, the splash of marshy water, flickering orange light. A white veil. Arthur’s mouth open, gasping. Mairwen with—Mairwen with the . . . no, with Baeddan.

  He opens his eyes to the thatching. He should still be in there. Cut to pieces and bound down by the devil, to fulfill the bargain.

  Flinging an arm over his eyes, Rhun grimaces, wishing he could smile. His lips have forgotten the shape of happiness.

  Even that melodramatic thought carves deeper into the empty cavern of his chest.

  Everything Rhun believed in was a lie. Baeddan is alive, and Rhun feels betrayed. That wasn’t the bargain. That wasn’t what he was promised. Baeddan was supposed to be at peace, Rhun’s fate should have been to die or live—that is what the saints agree to. That is the price. But he will not forget there are twenty-five skulls on the Bone Tree, and twenty-five saints before Baeddan.

  Rhun closes his eyes.

  Twenty-five pairs of black, empty eye sockets—

  Arthur’s fist out of nowhere, slams into Rhun’s cheek—

  Rhun can’t remember, but—

  He’s crumbling.

  Twenty-five. Nobody survived. There was never hope—Rhun doesn’t understand how it’s possible, when four saints ran back out of the forest, but he counted. Again and again. Twenty-five.

  Mair backs away from the youngest skull, shaking her head. Her hair is short and ragged, her eyes wide and black. She’s holding the devil’s hand! “My father,” she says, and—

  Exhaustion and disappointment drag Rhun down, and this thing on his wrist stings and pulls. He’d rip it off if he weren’t afraid of the consequences. To the valley, to Baeddan Sayer.

  “Saint, saint! There you are!” the devil hisses. “I know that shirt and those bones and the glow of your skin and smile.”

  Rhun presses his arm into his eyes and allows himself a grimace. Tears smear on his cheeks, draining down his temples. He’s not worried about his lack of memories, because all anyone needs to know about the Devil’s Forest and the bargain is there’s no surviving. There’s no choice. There’s no hope.

  Baeddan was always doomed; so was Rhun.

  It’s gone silent below. Rhun rolls toward the ladder, startled to find Arthur perched there, watching him with a pitcher in one hand and a scrap of cloth tossed over his shoulder. Blood smears his chin. Blue hollows under his eyes turn them bright indigo. His mouth is half curved up, half bitter, and bloodless.

  “Here’s water,” Arthur says, clunking the pitcher against the slatted floor. “To wash off the worst of the blood.” He climbs the rest of the way up while Rhun scoots over, crouching so as not to knock his head or shoulders on the low ceiling.

  But for the blood on his chin, Arthur seems clean already. He wears a too-large, fresh shirt that falls nearly to his knees, over fawn trousers, and is barefoot. He kneels and dips the cloth he brought into the pitcher. “Come on, Rhun. That back of yours is thrashed.”

  Rhun says, “You missed some on your chin.”

  Arthur swipes the cloth over his chin, pulling it away pink with blood. He lifts his eyebrows aggressively. “All right?”

  “No,” Rhun says, but they both know he doesn’t mean the blood. He means, Nothing will ever be all right again.

  A moment of silence squats between them.

  Arthur touches Rhun’s knee and they both feel the heat of it in the stinging bracelets tied around their wrists with hair and needle-thorns.

  “I was afraid you wouldn’t forgive me for running in here before you. For taking it away,” Arthur whispers.

  Deep in the forest, he huddles with Rhun beneath the roots of a tree tipped over a creek bed, and Rhun relishes the weight of Arthur’s head on his shoulder, how Arthur doesn’t pull away when Rhun touches his cheek to Arthur’s hair. They’re blinded by darkness, anxious to find Mairwen again, aching from bloody and bruised bodies. Rhun says, “I’ll always forgive you. Haven’t you figured that out?”

  Rhun knocks Arthur’s hand away.

  A familiar sneer parts Arthur’s mouth, the defensive one, the furious one, but he makes no comment.

  “It’s healed. Not thrashed,” Rhun says. “My back.”

  “Are you really not going to let me do this?” Arthur is incredulous.

  Rhun glowers.

  “Fine, you jackass.” Tossing the cloth on the floor with a snap, Arthur clamors back down the ladder. “Finish yourself and I’ll throw up a shirt for you. Then you come down to eat so we can talk.” His choppy blond hair vanishes below the loft ledge, and Rhun folds himself over his own lap. He laces his fingers behind his head. He has got to get it together.

  A shirt flops up over the ledge, sleeve catching on the ladder. It’s a pale-green shirt, thin and worn, but clean. Rhun strips his jerkin off—he lost his hunter’s hood and doesn’t remember when—and slowly peels his saint shirt away. It sticks to him, glued by blood, and tugs at his healing skin. Rhun angrily rips it free.

  The tattered saint shirt lands in his lap in pieces.

  Colorful embroidery decorates the sleeves, just along the top and near the shoulders. Flowers and lightning bolts, stars and an orange sun. And there is a stag sliced in three pieces by the devil’s claws. It had a heart once, Rhun realizes. Just like he did.

  • • •

  MAIRWEN SMILES—A SMALL, GENUINE smile—as Baeddan inspects a piece of cheese, then touches it delicately to his mouth. He nibbles, uncertain, before shoving it all in like a child. The fire flickers warmly behind him, and hot tea diffuses heat in her belly. Haf sits quietly beside her. Baeddan lifts his eyes, which have slowly taken a more human coloring, the black irises streaked and flecked with green. Green of spring and emerald green, the dark green of shadows and the green muck of a stagnant pond. His lashes are short and as black as his
hair, vivid against the pale-purple skin fading to deathly bone-ivory and yellowish stains. Crescent wounds from his fingernails frame his brow, glinting with the rich purple of his blood. He smiles at her, a soft, hungry smile, and she can see the curve of his cat teeth. Her body thrills, and the thick blood in her veins pumps faster, smoother. Whatever else, Mairwen remembers that he belongs here. With her. Or she with him? Both of them in the forest? The details are sketchy, but the feeling is real: belonging, and the forest.

  She wants to go back.

  Beside the hearth, Baeddan touches his hand to his chest, curling his fingers to tear, but with their eyes locked, he doesn’t do it. He only taps his forefinger at the hollow of his throat, tap-tap, tap-tap, with the beat of her heart. Mairwen leans nearer, drawn to the rhythm. She feels it dancing across her skin, pulsing in points of pain along her collarbone.

  Sliding his hand lower, he cups his palm just over his heart, where on his chest are twenty-four small bones sewn into his flesh, and three seeping wounds.

  Arthur thumps down the ladder and sweeps up the trousers and shirt and vest Haf brought from Braith Bowen for Rhun to change into. He throws it up in a messy ball, then turns to Mairwen and says rather viciously, “He has got to get on board.”

  Mair scrambles to her feet. She was supposed to be using this time to clean herself up too, not commune with the twenty-sixth saint. But Rhun is sliding down the ladder. “On board with what, Arthur?”

  “With us! With what happened and with figuring out what to do about it.”

  “It was all a lie. That’s what I remember.” Rhun shoulders past him to the worn table and takes a hunk of bread. Before eating, he glances at Baeddan. “How is he—are you?” he corrects himself. His face is drawn, splotchy with uneven stubble.

  “Warm, cousin,” Baeddan says. Then he laughs gently. The laugh nudges itself into a wilder grin that suddenly cuts off. Baeddan scowls. “Baeddan Sayer is my name.”

  Rhun stares at him, looking exhausted.

  Baeddan hums a broken melody and takes Mairwen’s wrist, drawing her down to sit beside him on the hearth. She’s glad to, and presses near enough her hip touches his, and when he lifts his arm it’s natural to tuck under it despite glowering disapproval from Arthur and uncertainty from Haf. She can’t help it: Being near Baeddan is like being with the whole of herself. The call inside her quiets. The tension and longing she’s lived with all her life has an answer. Because he is the forest now, somehow, the heart of it, and she is a Grace witch. Her heart always belonged to the forest.

  Rhun sinks onto a bench, puts his elbows on the table, and begins picking apart his bread.

  Arthur draws a breath to steady himself. “Tell me what you remember, Rhun, even if it doesn’t matter.”

  “I remember running, fighting wolves—black and gray, bleeding purple. They were nearly dead, or like corpses risen to fight. And . . . I remember a stinking marsh with strange orange lights. You punched me, Arthur.”

  “What! I don’t—”

  “And I remember flashes of teeth and roaring, and it wasn’t the devil stalking me; it was Baeddan. Laughing behind me, singing an old song about a bird?”

  “I know that lullaby,” Mairwen says. “I was singing it, not Baeddan.”

  Baeddan says, “I am the devil.”

  Mair curves her arm up to his face and strokes his jaw. “You’re the saint. One of the saints of Three Graces. The bargain made you into this, tied your heart to the forest like . . .” She shakes her head. “Maybe. I’m not sure what happened. What the magic is.” She lets her eyes drift toward the north window, as if she could see all the way to the forest.

  “There were twenty-five skulls on the Bone Tree.” It’s Rhun, voice dark and dull.

  Silence falls.

  “My father,” Mairwen says, reaching toward a skull. The youngest, white and yellowing, the bridge of its nose sharp as a dagger.

  “We should burn it down,” Arthur says. “The Bone Tree.”

  “Then anyone might die!” cried Haf, standing suddenly. “Babies!”

  “Where did the four skulls come from, to make twenty-five,” Mairwen asks, “if any saints survived and left our valley?”

  Rhun says, “It’s all a lie. The Grace witches tell a story to make us agree to run.”

  Mairwen meets his angry brown eyes, and a tremor of matching anger raises bumps along her forearms. Her mother, her mother, her mother. Except— “Maybe they’ve forgotten too. The Grace witches. My mother. We’re forgetting. Maybe . . .” She only wants her mother not to be a villain.

  “Tell us your memories now, Arthur,” Rhun says.

  “Baeddan choking me. Ghosts like my family, taunting me. I remember a marsh, too, and—drowning. Running, but it’s a blur, like a dream. And an altar, I think at the base of the Bone Tree.”

  “Yes!” cries Baeddan, “like this one.” He smooths a hand along the hearthstone where he’s sitting.

  As if he’d not been interrupted, Arthur says, “And I remember Mairwen asking me why I ran into the forest at all, but I didn’t until she touched me this morning. I remember hiding with you in that dry creek bed, since I grabbed your knee in the loft. We might remember more if we . . . do it again.”

  The look on Rhun’s face is too easy to read. Now you want to touch me, he says without saying anything at all. Even Mairwen knows.

  She says, “I remember Baeddan. And running—Arthur, you climbed a tree. Not the Bone Tree. I remember . . . birds. Tiny little bites. ‘What happened to the old god of the forest?’ I said that. I also said, ‘We are the saints of Three Graces.’ ”

  “I remember saying that, too!” Arthur stands suddenly, too excited to be calm. “We are the saints. We said it when we made the charm, I think.”

  Baeddan whispers, “It tasted so good.”

  They all stare at him for a moment of stunned silence.

  “What did?” Mairwen asks carefully.

  He touches his chest, and the three wounds beneath those other tiny bones sewn into his flesh.

  the tip of the tiny blade pressed at the edge of the bone. “Are you ready?” she asked Baeddan, and the devil bared his teeth. She took a deep breath, and cut

  Mairwen turns over her arm and stares at the knobby white bone tied to the bracelet. “It’s a bone from John Upjohn’s hand. And the rest are there . . .” She looks at Baeddan’s mottled, scarred chest.

  “Holy Mary,” Arthur says, and Mairwen thinks she’s never heard such reverence in his voice.

  Rhun shoves the heels of his hands into his eyes.

  Haf gasps. “Why did you do that?”

  “I don’t know,” Mairwen says with a frown. Her breathing shifts as something near panic takes hold of her. She stares at the bracelet, narrowing her eyes. Remember, she orders herself. She is a Grace witch! She should remember.

  “Why did we forget?” Rhun demands. “Why is that part of the bargain? Nobody ever told us that, did they! John should have. If he forgot too. Or is it—is it different for us?”

  Mair thinks of John Upjohn and his haunted eyes, his nightmares. He remembers something, but maybe not all.

  “We forget to keep the ones who run back out from telling us the truth,” Arthur says as if it is obvious. “The four who survived, and John, if they’d told us they saw the previous saint, the story would have fallen apart.”

  “That’s giving Three Graces plenty of credit. Assuming anyone would care,” Rhun says. The bitterness turns Mair’s stomach. It falls too hard and ugly from Rhun Sayer’s lips.

  Arthur glances at her, clearly just as worried about Rhun.

  “It’s also assuming,” Mair says, “this is always what happens: A saint goes in, is bound to the forest, and becomes like Baeddan. Then they stalk the next saint, and that saint replaces the old as the devil? Unless they run out again.”

  Baeddan moans softly.

  “The magic . . . works,” Mair says, thinking, Life, death, and blessing in between.

hat do you remember, Baeddan?” Haf asks, then bites her lips as she watches him.

  He touches a line of scarring that slides down his chest, ropy and purple. His head shakes in tiny fast motions. “The devil who chased me was the last saint, horned and vicious,” he whispers. “I ran and ran, and then I was—chasing. I chased John Upjohn because he smelled right. His breath tasted like sacrifice. So did yours, Rhun Sayer.” His claws cut into his flesh, and new violet blood blossoms. With the dull white of the bones sewn over his heart, his chest is like a meadow scattered with spring flowers.

  Mairwen puts her hand on his.

  Baeddan bares his sharp teeth and rolls up onto his feet quick enough Mairwen barely scrambles out of the way. He says, “The forest sang to me, lullabies and soothing hymns, and we made things together, creatures and—and new flowers. I tried. I tried to be what the forest needed, but I’m not good enough. I’m not—I don’t remember, except! If I bound Rhun Sayer onto the altar slab, I would be free! My head on the Bone Tree with the rest of them, to make Rhun Sayer the devil in my place.”

  He pants, sweat glistening across his mottled forehead. “It’s calling me,” he moans.

  “Baeddan,” Mair soothes. “Baeddan Sayer.”

  Slowly, slowly Baeddan’s lips lower over his teeth, and his brow smooths. He blinks again and again, shoulders drooping. “Baeddan Sayer,” he whispers.

  Mairwen holds on to his clammy shoulder and checks on Haf.

  Her friend’s cheeks are deep pink, but she’s holding herself still. Sorry, she mouths.

  “I feel it too,” Rhun says. “Calling me. It wants me back.”

  It’s on Mair’s tongue to say she wants to go back inside the forest; maybe they’ll remember if they go back inside.

  Mairwen Grace.

  Forest daughter.

  She grips Baeddan’s hand and sees a vision of Rhun, her Rhun, sliced open and bound to the Bone Tree’s altar, vines piercing his wrists and thighs, twining through his rib cage, transforming him into a devil. It isn’t a memory, but Baeddan moans again, and his hand under hers trembles.