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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 18


  “Mair?” Rhun asks.

  Arthur pulls her nearer, so the young men hold her between them, all three pairs of hands still clasped. She shakes her head hard, eyes shut, mouth tightly drawn. Rhun and Arthur share a fearful glance over her hair. Rhun shrugs. Arthur shakes his head slightly.

  They wait, watching each other and watching her, watching the thin tracks of clouds stretching in from the west. Rhun is grounded, heels and toes firm to the earth, and it’s good and right here with the two of them, hands held, even if everything outside their circle is broken and pockmarked with secrets.

  —they climb together onto the crumbling altar, hands held, all of them trembling as the branches of the Bone Tree tremble overhead, and the skulls rattle, teeth clattering in nasty laughter—

  Rhun grunts at the memory.

  Mairwen’s head falls back. Color returns to her lips. His own skin is over-warm, but pleasantly so. Like sunshine and laughter. There are three tiny purple flowers flaring teardrop petals at Mair’s feet.

  “Violas,” Mairwen says, blinking, her eyes unfocused, then, “I have to ask Baeddan about the Bone Tree.”

  “Where is Baeddan?” Rhun asks, eyeing the pasture hill behind Mair, from which she came.

  She frowns. “Inside?”

  “No,” Rhun says, and Arthur says, “He wasn’t with you?”

  “Oh no.” Mairwen releases both of their hands and turns in a rather frantic circle. “Where would he go?”

  Arthur snorts. “On a murderous rampage? Or skipping though the fields of sheep, singing old shepherd songs? Who can tell with that one?”

  Rhun says, “Home.”

  • • •

  THEY SPLIT UP.

  It’s not the best idea, but worse to let Baeddan Sayer wander. Mair heads toward the forest, to loop around the northern edge of the valley in case Baeddan is being drawn to his more recent home; Rhun goes to the Sayer homestead; Arthur gets the rather short straw of searching Three Graces itself.

  God, Arthur feels fiery, awake, fulfilled, even after only a few hours of sleep. The sunlight is clear, his eyes see far, and he’s ready to act. Arthur came out of the Devil’s Forest fearless. And that makes him powerful.

  What I am is not for you to decide!

  It’s a revelation he wishes he’d had years ago.

  As Arthur tromps through the grass, down around the barley fields, and skirts the edge of the sheep pastures, he smiles. There always was something wrong with this valley, and he knew it, even if he was wrong about the source. Three Graces is ruled by fear. Fear of death, illness, bad crops, too much rain! Fear of little girls, even, and saints. He remembers thinking only the Slaughter Moon reminds everyone of their place, two nights ago at the sacrifice feast. But it isn’t the bargain. It’s fear. Not of the devil, but fear of change. Fear of doing anything different that might cause a ripple and bring it all down. Fear of a little boy in a dress, because he didn’t fit into the structure of town, the rules.

  There was never anything wrong with Arthur.

  Except his damn memory. He’s angry he can’t remember kissing Rhun in the forest. A wild thought crosses his mind—You’ll have to kiss him again, then—and it terrifies Arthur, so he laughs.

  A small group of girls—a couple of Howells and Bethy Ellis—head toward him from the edge of town. They pause to watch him, whispering behind their hands, and Bethy is sure to touch her lips flirtatiously. Arthur’s smile turns a little too self-satisfied.

  And then, around the corner from the last row of cottages comes Alun Prichard, calling out something to Taffy Howell. He stops short at the sight of Arthur, though, gaping slightly before he sets his features in a knowing drawl. “Couch,” he says, “borrowing a man’s clothes from your daddy—or Rhun Sayer’s daddy?”

  It’s Alun’s usual sort of jibe, more ignorable than hurtful, but that never stopped Arthur from rising to meet the stupidity before.

  Today something amazing happens: Arthur laughs. It fades into a rather condescending smile. “You, Alun, are the last thing that scares me anymore.”

  Confusion spreads on Alun’s face, and one of the boys with him claps a hand on his shoulder, laughing with Arthur. Alun shrugs it off, and Bethy Ellis says, “Arthur’s a saint now.”

  Because he can afford to, Arthur shakes his head. “No, that’s only Rhun Sayer. I’m still just my mother’s son.” Nobody can change who he is except for himself, not any saint ritual, not an ignorant, terrified town, not a night spent in the forest, not a dress or a kiss. He steps nearer Alun. “My mother’s son who can still beat you to bloody bruises if I want to, and who will say otherwise?”

  A scream rips over the rooftops.

  All the young people startle, turning toward it and the center of town.

  Arthur is the fastest to react, still tuned in to danger, and he runs for the sound.

  Shouldering through a crowd at the edge of the town square, he grits his teeth and hopes it’s not Baeddan, though he knows better. More villagers push out of their houses around him, most not noticing who he is, which aggravates him. He elbows past two broad men blocking his way, ignoring the curse from the older one, and finds himself at the fore, surrounded by the worried, frightened, and drawn faces of his neighbors.

  Baeddan crouches over streaks of ash and charcoal left from the bonfire celebration two nights ago. His bruised hands cover his face and his back is bowed as he bends over, making himself as small as possible. The tattered hem of his old cracking leather coat flares around him like a skirt. His shoulders are tense as he slowly rocks on the balls of his bare feet.

  Arthur’s seen this pose before, and if everyone shut up, he’s certain they’d all hear Baeddan singing to himself, nonsense phrases and rhymes without finesse.

  The devil crouches, muttering, and Arthur says, “It’s not as frightening as I—”

  The creature thrusts up, hissing through bared teeth at Arthur, who leaps back, long knife out. But Arthur’s hand shakes—he’s too tired, too sore, too furious! “Back off,” he snarls, and the devil snaps his teeth at him, laughing.

  “You’ll run and run, but you can’t outrun me, no-saint, never-saint, saintless, saint-free, saint saint saint—”

  “Baeddan,” Mair soothes. “Come away with me. Leave them. You don’t need to chase them.”

  “He can chase me,” Arthur snaps. “Welcome to try, devil.”

  “Ha!” The devil lashes out, ignoring the knife that slices his side, and catches his claws across Arthur’s face.

  Arthur strides forward and bends to one knee so he’s at Baeddan’s level. He was right; the devil is muttering softly to himself. “Baeddan Sayer,” Arthur says softly but firmly, as Mair would. “Get up and come away with me.”

  “Not-saint, never-saint, is it you?” comes the singsong voice, muffled by his hands.

  “It’s Arthur Couch. Use my name as I have the courtesy to use yours.”

  “Courtesy!” The devil’s broad shoulders shake with laughing.

  It makes Arthur’s mouth twitch with matching humor. He puts a hand on the devil’s shoulder, unprepared for the spark that passes between them. The binding on his wrist tightens, stinging his raw skin. Arthur doesn’t let go. The devil looks up with coal-black eyes, monstrous and lost.

  “Why did you come here?” Arthur asks. “Let’s go, to Mairwen.”

  “Yes, yes, Mairwen Grace, the Grace witch, where is she?” Baeddan whispers.

  “Is it really Baeddan Sayer?” calls a woman.

  Half the valley at least is here, and more arriving as word passes. There are the Lewises except for Haf—who might still be asleep at the Grace house—their youngest girl hiding her face in her mother’s shoulder; Cat Dee propped on her grandson Pad’s arm, too wrinkled to see straight; Sayer cousins and both Parry brothers, hungry as they stare at Arthur. The smith, the cooper, and all the butcher’s family, and men spilling out of the pub. Including his father, Gethin Couch.

  “Yes, it’s Baeddan,” Arthur sa
ys.

  “Baeddan?” A different woman haltingly approaches. Effa Crewe, pretty and lithe, a decade or so older than Arthur. Under his hand, the devil growls low and longing.

  Per Argall, who Arthur would not have credited with such pluck, calls out, “Tell us what happens in the forest, Arthur. How did you do this?”

  Arthur stands, using the devil’s shoulder for support. “I’d love to tell you, Per. But we’ll wait for the others.”

  Lord Vaughn steps out of the crowd. He’s with the men who came out of the pub. The lord is dressed simply in brown velvet that blends well with the garb of the men around him, and his brown hair curls reddish in the afternoon sun. He seems younger than before to Arthur. Or maybe Arthur feels older. “How is Rhun, and Mairwen, too?” the lord asks.

  Arthur shrugs. “They’ll be along. Tell you themselves.”

  Vaughn puts on a sympathetic face as his half-gray, half-brown gaze falls to Baeddan. “Poor creature, poor saint. We would like to hear your story.”

  Baeddan stands suddenly, staring at Vaughn, and Arthur almost thinks he’ll attack, but then Baeddan only huffs and laughs gently to himself, then covers the tiny bones sewn into his flesh with his hand. Spinning, Baeddan dashes away, leaving Arthur stunned. It’s not the exit he prefers, but Arthur takes off after the devil.

  • • •

  RHUN IS TOO FAR AWAY to hear the scream, more than halfway up the wooded path to the Sayer homestead. His legs feel strong and steady, his heartbeat firm, though he’d almost rather still be thrashed, too tired to face the day, face his family or any truth.

  Leaves fall gently, yellow and orange, pieces of sunlight chipped out of the sky. He walks with his habitual stealth, though he experiences a sudden wild desire to crash off the path, make all the noise he can manage to ruin the peaceful beauty of his home forest. Stopping, he forces himself to take several long, slow breaths. Autumn tastes sharp on his tongue, and the first freeze of winter tightens the back of his throat. This place is worth fighting for, he reminds himself. He has to believe that. The people are as earnest and honest as they were yesterday. As he was before he knew there was a lie at the heart of the forest. He had faith in the rituals, in the sainthood, in himself. He owes them that faith.

  A sour smile turns his mouth. Arthur would say Rhun is the one owed, and Mairwen that he’s given enough. But he was made the saint, given the burden of seeing the bargain completed, no matter how much of it was a lie. It was intended as an honor, and he embraced it as one. He can’t let his little brothers down, at least, or his parents.

  So Rhun Sayer tries to appreciate the golden atmosphere and merry birdsong, the tiny hints of life that were so absent in the Devil’s Forest. He hums, but only the first several notes of different songs. He can’t quite fall fully into one.

  The front door of the Sayer house is open, smoke streaming gracefully from the chimney. If it were all shut up, he’d be able to slip in and grab clothes, assuming Baeddan is nowhere to be found.

  “—won’t be long,” his mother is saying when he steps up onto the wooden floor of the house, narrowing his eyes as they adjust to the combination of sparse sunlight and hot firelight.

  Silence falls, and a woman gasps. There are four of them sitting around Nona Sayer’s gouged kitchen table: Nona, his aunt Alis, Hetty Pugh, and Aderyn Grace. He has no idea what to say, and so remains quiet.

  “Rhun, my God.” Nona stands up from her mismatched chair, but comes no nearer to him; it isn’t her way. Hetty smiles through the weariness scoured under her bright eyes, and Aderyn stares at him as if he’s a ghost, though she is not the one most gutted by their return this morning. That is Alis Sayer, Baeddan’s mother, who walks to Rhun and carefully puts her arms around his neck, hugging him so tightly she goes up onto her tiptoes. He hugs her back, lifting her slowly off her feet, giving what he can. “I’m sorry for the shock of it,” he whispers to her.

  “I’m sorry for nothing today,” Alis whispers back, dropping away from the embrace with shining eyes and a damp, pretty smile. She puts her hands to either side of his face and shakes her head happily. “My son is alive. How could I be anything but grateful?”

  Rhun isn’t certain how to answer without revealing too much of the tortured existence he suspects Baeddan has suffered these ten long years. He nods.

  Nona wipes her hands on her apron. “Tell us now, Rhun. Your mothers have been desperate for too long, and you shouldn’t force us longer.”

  “Isn’t it better,” Aderyn Grace says carefully, “to tell us now, before the feast, when there are no children to be frightened?”

  It’s the only thing she could have said, perhaps, to solidify Rhun’s determination not to share anything he knows, especially with her, before Mairwen has a chance. His jaw clenches, his fists, too. He says, “Children are the ones expected to give all to the bargain, expected to sacrifice their lives. I think the children deserve this story more than any of you ever could.”

  Aderyn pulls back, hands folding at her waist, and Hetty clicks her tongue. Alis Sayer touches her mouth, and her eyes drift shut to let a tear fall from each. Rhun’s mother plants fists on her hips and says, “You’ve changed, son.”

  He rubs the binding on his wrist, relishing the sting. “I’m not a boy anymore, that’s all. I understand some things I didn’t before. About . . . people.”

  Nona turns an angry glance at the other women, then says to Rhun, “I hoped a valley like this would never teach you such a lesson.”

  “It was either this lesson, or death.”

  His mother’s face slackens in shock, and Rhun feels only a small moment of shame.

  “We’re never promised innocence in this valley,” Hetty Pugh says.

  “Such a bargain would require an even steeper price,” Aderyn agrees quietly, studying Rhun with a level, heavy regard. “Where is my daughter?”

  “With Haf Lewis,” he says, uninterested in revealing they lost Baeddan and split up to find him.

  “Is she so changed as you?”

  Rhun stares; he’s not sure. The forest was always in Mairwen, he knows, but the night intensified her, purified her somehow. She is more herself than he thought was possible.

  He says, “Mairwen is her truest self now. Maybe we all are.”

  • • •

  THE EDGE OF THE DEVIL’S Forest swells with shadows, and Mairwen holds tighter to Haf Lewis’s hand, stepping fully inside. Haf gasps but joins her, squeezing so tight their bones crunch together.

  It feels right to enter the forest again. The air cools and ahead all is quiet. She remembers something warm and peaceful in the center. The altar.

  rough gray stone is warm under her fingers. She avoids the dark streaks staining it, maybe from rain or old dead vines, maybe blood. Mairwen imagines laying herself down upon it and falling into a long, relaxing sleep. She’s so tired, and this bed would welcome her bones. Her heart. It doesn’t frighten her, though perhaps it should. A breeze rattles the thorns and dry leaves tossed over the surface of the altar. Dawn arrives soon. An hour or less. Beyond the altar, the Bone Tree is beautiful: white as the moon, layered with armor of bones. Half alive. She could make it fully alive.

  “Mairwen Grace.”

  She lifts her head.

  “I never thought to stand here,” Haf whispers.

  Mair transfers her grip to Haf’s shoulder, hugging her friend. “There is an altar at the base of the Bone Tree just like the hearth at my mother’s house, and if you touch it, it’s warm, despite being hard granite. The warmth is the heart of the forest, and magic pulses out through the root system and canopy, the way our blood is in our fingers and toes.”

  “You make it sound like it’s magic from a fairy tale.”

  “Oh, Haf.” Mair looks into the forest, at the tall black trees and popping green undergrowth, the scatter of tiny white flowers, and every layer of shadows back and back and back. “This is all a fairy tale.”

  Haf wraps her arm around Mairwen’s waist. ??
?It’s too real for that.”

  “We tell it as a story, the three Grace sisters and the devil. It’s about falling in love with monsters and giving your heart up for your home. We tell it to the boys so they’ll have it like a shield. We tell it to the entire town so none of us question the details of the bargain.”

  Wind blows the canopy overhead, littering them with tiny oval leaves, dry and brown and pale yellow, and Haf shudders, making an involuntary move to run back out into the sun.

  Just then, the bruising ache along Mairwen’s collarbones pulses, and she thinks she hears the creaking sound of branches growing and leaning in a harsh wind. Mair closes her eyes, focuses on the pain until it dissipates. What is she becoming?

  beneath her sheer veil, the girl puts a finger to her lips for quiet

  Mairwen closes her eyes, reaching out with her hand as if she can grasp the memory.

  A tiny voice calls out “Mairwen Grace!” from deeper in the forest.

  Haf startles, tugging away. “What was that? Who is in there?”

  Mair walks forward, crunching over a bed of fallen leaves. It was not Baeddan, but a high, lovely voice, like a bird. She smiles. “Some bird women, I think, tiny creatures with sharp teeth. Be careful.”

  “Oh,” murmurs Haf in awe.

  “Mairwen Grace!”

  Darting toward them from branch to branch is a drab sparrow woman. She flits and leaps in a stunted arc of flight. “Is that you, Mairwen Grace?”

  “Hello, lovely,” Mair calls, holding out a hand palm-up. The bird alights upon it, hands grasping at Mairwen’s wrist.

  Haf covers her mouth with her hands. “How wonderful and terrifying,” she says through pressed fingers.

  “This is my friend Haf Lewis,” Mairwen says.

  The bird woman grins, displaying all her needle teeth. “Though she broke our forest, any friend of the Grace witch is a friend of mine.” Then she stands, her bare feet tickling Mair’s palm, and puts her hands to her waist, where a braid of red-brown hair circles her like a belt.