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Strange Grace 15
Warmth hugs her wrist, and she sees Rhun’s mouth twitch. Arthur clenches his jaw. They both feel it too, because of the charm binding them together.
She doesn’t know how she made these or how much time they have until the bargain breaks again, and she’s dizzy suddenly. Her collarbone aches, her skull throbs, and blood drags through her veins slow and thick.
If she goes into the forest, all will be well.
She stands, distancing herself from Baeddan’s touch, from all of them.
“It calls the survivors back,” she whispers. “They leave the valley, maybe, but they come back. And they die. That must be what we realized in the forest. There is no surviving.”
“No hope,” Rhun adds. “I was a saint only to be slaughtered.”
“I will make this right,” Mairwen whispers. “I have to—lie down.” She rushes into her mother’s back bedroom.
Closing the door, she presses her back hard against it and digs her fingers into her chest exactly as Baeddan does. Her breath comes quickly and her collar aches and itches.
Her eyes fly open as her fingers push at the skin over her collarbone. Beneath the skin she feels small bumps, like her collarbone is growing hard boils. She walks her fingers along them, staring straight ahead at the fan of beautiful goose feathers hanging on the wall.
Baeddan has a row of thorns growing in short hooks from his collarbone.
Mairwen holds her hands before her, inspecting them.
The bracelet of hair and bone and thorns twists tightly around her wrist, stinging in a dozen places. But there’s nothing obviously changed about her hands. Her fingernails are ragged and bluer than usual from being cold so many hours. She touches her face and hair, exploring with her fingers everything she can touch. She strips out of the bodice and overskirt, removes her shift and leggings, socks and boots until she’s naked in her mother’s room, shivering and running her hands everywhere, hunting for irregularities. All she finds are scabs and shallow scrapes from the night, mostly on her arms and neck and scalp, tiny bites, and the closing wounds created by invasive trees lifting her off her feet.
At her mother’s trunk, she pulls out a long wool shirt and drags it on. She climbs into her mother’s bed and huddles under the quilt, breathing deep of Aderyn’s flower smell that’s sunk into the pillow and mattress.
• • •
MAIRWEN LEAVES A VOID WHEN she departs.
They stare at each other until Haf, very practically, sets more tea to cook and Rhun attacks some mutton, frowning.
Baeddan crouches at the hearthstone, hands dug through his hair and sharp thorns, humming to himself.
Arthur burns to say something to Rhun, to break him out of this dark mood, but Arthur’s never been one for speeches or comfort. Especially not with Haf Lewis and the devil for witnesses. He focuses on not squirming, on staying where he is, when much of him would like to walk out that front door and burn it all down. Make the choice for all of them. Rhun’s right: The bargain is a lie, and it shouldn’t be remade. It should be ended. Three Graces should be forced to wake up.
Rhun says, “I’m going to sleep,” and stands. Before climbing to the loft again, he crouches in front of the devil. “Baeddan, stay here. I don’t know if you’re tired too, but we have to rest. If you sleep, the bargain might—it might heal you too, if you can be healed.”
“Yes, cousin,” Baeddan says, putting a discolored hand on Rhun’s knee.
Arthur thinks Rhun seems the elder of the two, the more weary. It breaks his heart and he hates it. He’s filled with a longing to find some comfort for Rhun, sharper than it’s ever been. For a breath, nothing matters except making Rhun Sayer smile. It’s the bracelet—it has to be—binding them together, but when Rhun climbs the ladder, Arthur forces himself to ask Haf if she’ll be all right, and at her affirmation, he follows Rhun.
His friend curls on the bedding with his back to the edge, dark hair a messy cloud of curls.
Arthur says, “We should go down and join Mair. I think we should all be together now. It’ll make us stronger, heal faster. Remember more.”
Rhun shakes his head.
Grumbling a sigh, Arthur sits next to the pile of mattress and quilts. He sniffs angrily. This is not a position he ever wanted to be in. He draws up his knees and props his arms over them, using his forearms as a place to lay his head. He waits, falling into a drowsy peace, until Rhun hasn’t shifted or changed his breathing in several minutes.
Then Arthur carefully stretches out beside Rhun, back to back. He barely breathes, too aware of Rhun’s body, angry about it, angry at himself for being angry, and finally falls asleep holding himself tense and straight.
• • •
ARTHUR RUNS HARD, LEAPING FALLEN logs and shoving through snapping branches, while the creatures dog his heels. He hunts for open ground to turn and fight, but there’s no time, no place. A skeletal rat-boy jumps onto his back, ripping at his hood, and shrieks with laughter as he uses Arthur’s hair like reins. Arthur flips one knife and slashes up at the tiny monster. His knife cuts, but the creature holds on. It slows Arthur, and other bone monsters claw at him.
Grunting, he spins and slams backward into a tree, crushing the monster on his back. He’s free for only a moment before another grabs his thigh. Arthur kicks, stabs downward with his long knife. The blade slides in too smoothly, and Arthur pops the rat-skull head off.
Laughter all around.
He runs again.
His pursuers are tiny and white, all knobby knees and elbows, some on two legs, others on four, with bloated stomachs, concave chests where the ribs press out like ladders. Their heads are the skulls of what they once were: rats and squirrels, owls, dogs, all with teeth and black hollow eyes. Some wear ragged capes of fur or feathers. They’re all half rotted.
The darkness hides leaves and slippery deadfall, and it’s all Arthur can do to stay on his feet and ahead of them. He’s no thought to direction, just getting away and leading them away from Mairwen.
His heel catches and he stumbles, drops a knife before impaling himself, and hits the ground hard. Rolling fast, he swipes with his remaining knife, bares his teeth, and growls. The bone creatures cackle like tiny ringing bells, clapping and dancing around him. One, fish-belly pale with a young deer skull, holds up the fallen knife, and then they swarm.
Arthur yells, tries to leap up, but they’ve got his legs, and two jump down from a tree onto his chest. It blows his breath away, and he struggles to suck more in again. He can’t roll. He can’t move. Then there’s a cold blade at his neck, and the black, empty eye sockets of a raven skull.
This cannot be the end. He will not die here, so shortly into his run. He will not die by these damned tiny monsters.
But his head rings and his chest burns. They’re tearing at his coat, tugging open ties to push it open and reveal his wool shirt. One whines something, like words.
Another answers, then another.
Arthur’s breath is evening, though his heart pounds and his head aches. He still holds one knife in his left hand as he watches the bone creatures. They surround him, at least twenty, hissing and whispering to themselves. He has to risk it, or they’ll bury him here.
In a single motion, he flings his knife up and slides to the side. Their knife at his throat cuts, but he barely feels it yet. His knife slashes the bone boy at his head and Arthur is free, grunting under the onslaught of grasping claws reaching for his arms and legs and chest. One has his hair. Arthur kicks with all his strength, sending more of them flying back.
Then he’s up and about to run again, except the bone creatures scatter.
A part of him knows the most likely reason they fled is because something worse is coming, but he leans into a tree anyway, puts his arm against it and his forehead against his arm, and breathes deeply. Pain spreads in a perfect line across his neck, but the wound barely bleeds, he can breathe, and he can turn his head, so it’s shallow.
efully, Arthur puts his back to the tree and looks around. He’s alone, surrounded by gnarled black trees dripping sap that glints reddish in the moonlight. Like blood. But the smell in the air is floral and sweet. Arthur steps toward his dropped knife. It’s caught between roots. His back aches from blossoming bruises, and he’s amazed he hardly noticed the pitching, tangled ground while he was down on it. Jerking his knife free, he sheathes it, and the other. His quiver is cracked and useless, from slamming into that tree to remove the bone creature, or from his fall, he doesn’t know. Taking out the handful of arrows, he tucks them into the back of his belt as best he can. It’ll lose him time when he needs to draw them, but at least he’ll have them. He backtracks slowly for a few minutes to find his bow if he can.
Too soon, he realizes it’s impossible. This is only the way he believes he ran, and he’s not sure when he lost the bow. It might be all the way back at that tree Mairwen climbed to orient them.
He doesn’t say her name out loud, though he wants to, just to remind himself how it feels.
At a quiet noise to his left, Arthur spins, knife raised. He stares through the shadows, unblinking, as if the longer he stares the more likely he’ll be able to see through the darkness to whatever shifted leaves.
A light flickers.
It moves like a living thing, like someone coming toward him through all the tangled forest with a small white candle.
Ducking behind a tree, Arthur keeps his gaze on the light.
Could it be Mairwen? Would she have been able to find fire? But she’d be louder, surely.
It grows nearer, growing in length: It’s a figure in white, walking slowly, its entire body covered in a sheer white veil.
Around it the air is hazy, thickening into a lovely mist that reminds him of sunrise, when the low fields gather fog and dew spreads like diamonds across the valley.
It approaches him, and Arthur steps out from behind the tree.
The veiled figure pauses. Beneath the veil he can make out a lovely face, a woman’s face. Or a girl. She’s smiling. The veil falls to the tops of her white feet.
Arthur Couch, she whispers.
Her mouth does not move.
The whisper comes again, behind him. He whirls around: nothing.
When Arthur looks back, the veiled girl is gone.
• • •
THE FOREST IS NOT WHAT Rhun expected. He tracks Mairwen and Arthur on and on through the darkness, ignoring the whisper of movement all around him, the occasional growl. And then—then come the footsteps.
Hard, even thudding footsteps like heavy boots or massive paws.
It might be the devil.
Rhun moves faster. He keeps his breath even. He has to find Arthur and Mairwen before the devil does.
Unless this is the devil behind him, and Rhun can lead it away from his friends.
But how to know for certain?
He pauses when he realizes the path he was following diverges at the base of this wide yew tree: Arthur’s long-stride prints smeared against undergrowth leading northwest; the broken twigs off a bush leading northeast where Mair and her skirts passed so destructively.
Shadows crawl toward him.
He follows Arthur, telling himself it’s because he believes Mair is safer. The daughter of a witch and a saint, she can rely on her own power, but Arthur is vulnerable. Losing Arthur is a risk he doesn’t know how to take.
The path leads far; Arthur was running, and there are tinier prints around his, some like tiny dogs, others cloven-hoofed but in a two-legged pattern, some clawed like birds. He finds a bow and lifts it off the muddy ground. It’s Arthur’s, and Rhun holds it tightly, teeth clenched. “Arthur?” he calls, unconcerned with attracting attention. Better the forest notice him than attack Arthur.
There is only silence in response. He tracks on, making little enough noise himself, eyes wide for flashes of color or movement, ears open, senses alert for shifting light or cold.
The trail ends in a small clearing, signs of scuffle apparent in gouged bark and crushed leaf litter. A smear of mud. A broken arrow. The trees are narrow and black here, dripping sap a thick reddish-brown color. It’s more honey-like than the blood it resembles, and Rhun rubs his finger through it, pulling it away tacky and smelling like copper.
Scarlet catches his eye, on the forest floor.
But not enough to stop Rhun’s heart. Only a few speckles across a spill of oak leaves.
Rhun stalks the perimeter, noting where the tiny footprints gathered and scattered, where they head off without Arthur, directly toward where Rhun is fairly sure the Bone Tree waits. It’s as if he can sense it, beating at the center of the forest. Part of him wants to follow that call, but Rhun rolls his shoulders, breaking the pull. He heads the other way through the dense undergrowth, hoping it’s the right choice to continue finding signs of Arthur.
Soon moonlight wavers ahead of him, in a pattern he recognizes as water. He hears no trickle or stream, and assumes he’s located a pond or such, wondering if he can drink it. Probably not, but he has a water skin strapped to his back.
It’s not too long before the trees shrink and thin, growing like elegant needles out of long grass. Orange light flickers from the earth. He smells dankness and rot, and a low wind groans, bringing a tang of burning iron with it. Not a pond, but a marsh.
Rhun’s boots sink into mud, and bright green grass clings to his calves with sticky fingers.
“Arthur!” he yells.
His voice rings out, then fades, leaving silence heavier than before.
A splash draws his attention, something large falling, and he dashes toward it, lifting his legs high to get through the muck.
It’s Arthur, facedown, limp. Rhun grunts his panic and grabs his friend’s shoulder, turning him over. Arthur’s hair sticks across his face, his mouth open and full of water. His skin is clammy, waterlogged. He’s not breathing.
“Arthur,” Rhun says, slapping his cheek, digging a finger into his mouth to clear it, shaking him. There’s nothing. No response. “Arthur!” he yells.
Water and mud suck at him, lapping as he splashes frantically.
He hears the echo of his own name, cried back at him from a long way.
It is Arthur’s voice.
Rhun leaps up, the body rolling away from him, sinking, disappearing. He darts forward, searching the muck with his boots, crouching to dip his hands again and again in the water. The body is gone. It wasn’t Arthur.
Relief and terror leave him a special kind of breathless.
“Arthur!” he cries again.
He moves toward the voice. At least he thinks he does. Sound echoes strangely in this marsh. The orange light disorients him and the shadows are not attached to what they should be. He stumbles into another body. His mother, Nona Sayer, drowned, too, her hand gray and open-palmed, eyes glazed and white as the moon. Rhun bares his teeth at it, steps over her, his heartbeat hurling through him, painful and hard. Here is Mairwen, and there his cousin Brac, and there—oh God—the little hands of Genny Bowen. His youngest brother, Elis. His town, his family and friends, dead and drowned. Rhun knows it’s not real, but he can touch them, lift them, smell the dank death, even as the marsh glows, tuning their bodies into monstrous form.
“Arthur!” he yells.
He’s nearer, and Rhun runs, kicking his heavy boots through the shallow water.
He sees Arthur across a stagnant stretch of marsh, spinning as though blind, attacking nothing, mouth bent in a ferocious grimace.
“Arthur,” he says firmly, dashing for his friend. “Arthur, there’s nothing here but me. It’s Rhun.”
Arthur lashes out, but Rhun blocks the strike, twisting around to catch Arthur’s arms. They grapple, and Arthur shakes his head. “You’re not real,” he says desperately.
“I am. Arthur. I followed you in, tracked you. It’s all right. You’re all right.”
“No. NO.” Arthur shoves free. His cheeks are alive and pink with exhilaration, his blue eyes wild, blood streaked across his forehead and staining his wet hair. “I cannot afford to believe you. It’s not worth my life to believe you.”
Rhun reaches out again, helpless. “Arthur, please.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t.” Arthur backs away, shaking, wincing. And staring Rhun up and down with such longing it breaks Rhun’s heart.
He knows how to prove it, but also fears it, worried the answer will make everything worse. Fiery light surrounds them, as if they exist in the center of a bonfire. The dark water ruffles at their ankles. White faces of the drowned and deceased stare with hollow black eyes at Rhun. Everything he knows and loves dead, destroyed. His worst nightmare. He steps forward. Arthur waits. What does Arthur see? What fear?
And Rhun plunges in. He takes Arthur’s face and kisses him.
He expects Arthur to jerk away, cry out and hit him, but believe him.
Instead Arthur melts nearer with a small cry of relief, kisses Rhun’s jaw as he wraps his arms around him and hugs tightly enough to make them both shake. “Rhun,” he says. “It’s you.”
• • •
THE FOREST CLINGS TO MAIRWEN. Roots unfurl from the mud to lap at her boots, and night-black flowers reach for her ankles. Invisible fingers press her cheeks and tug at her hair. Her sleeves tear and her dress, too, and she leaves a wake of blue wool, trailing behind her in fits and thready tangles.
“There, there,” she murmurs to the forest, and hums a fragile melody. A lullaby about courting birds, a lark and a jay, who don’t belong together but recognize each other’s songs. Fewer roots curl up in her way and the trees drift and sway out of her path. Mair sings it softly, then louder, though she never thought much of her own singing. She repeats the refrain again and again as she slowly walks through the Devil’s Forest, voice trembling. Not from fear, but from a growing pleasure. Everything she sees makes her think how right she was to come in here. She fits. Light and dark together, all angles and promises.
She finds herself in a copse of young dogwood trees, blooming their snowy flowers even now at harvest time. The petals draw moonlight like mirrors, and Mair breathes in the clean, bright perfume. These dogwood flowers would make a lovely crown, braided into her hair. With their cross-shaped blossoms, their pale-pink tones and bright-green centers, the tiny oval leaves. Blessing trees, these are called sometimes.