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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 19


  “It is an honor to meet you, Lady Sparrow.” Haf even goes so far as to curtsy neatly.

  The bird woman adores it. She whistles happily. “I like you. Do you sing?”

  “Later,” Mairwen says. “What do you mean, I broke your forest?”

  “You stole our god and gave us none new!” the bird woman accuses.

  “Your god?”

  “The witches call him a devil!” She stretches her wings to their full expanse: near a foot, perhaps, if one is measuring generously.

  “What happened to the old god of the forest?” Mairwen cries out.

  The memory remains an echo of her voice, just the question, again and again.

  Mairwen strokes the bird woman’s long feathers, puzzling through what she knows. “Baeddan. The twenty-sixth saint, he stayed in the forest and . . . became the god. That’s what we call the devil.”

  “It is uncomfortable in the forest today. Our heart needs a heart.”

  “My mother always said he was a god, not a devil,” Mair says, glancing to Haf.

  “Yes, yes, you understand, pretty girl, Grace witch. Oh, you are wise as you are beautiful.” The bird woman offers a flirtatious, sneaky smile.

  Mair draws the bird woman nearer to her breast. “How long has there been a devil in your forest, do you know?”

  “The devil changes, again and again, new boys, new hearts, new songs.”

  “And before the devil, what then?”

  The bird woman cocks her head, very like a bird. “There has always been a devil.”

  “Did . . . did the devil always change?” she asks carefully. “The first one, the old god?”

  “No,” the bird woman trills. “The old god left the heart tree, the tree at the heart of our forest, and everything was different.”

  Breathless, Mairwen holds the bird woman close, recalling Baeddan’s taste for them, and strokes her long primary feathers. The rhythm of her petting meets the rhythm of her heartbeat, the rhythm of her breath and the itch across her chest. She feels it, too, in her fingers, and along her spine, and flushing over every inch of her skin. Changing her. Mair tosses the bird woman lightly up, and as the creature takes to flight, she crouches. Though Haf hums in confusion, Mairwen unlaces and knocks off her boots, then places her bare feet against the earth of the forest. It’s so cool and comforting her shoulders relax and she lets her head fall back.

  The old god of the forest broke free of the Bone Tree. Mairwen would risk all their lives to wager that moment was the start of this bargain. The old god and the youngest Grace witch. The story says they loved each other, but can the story be trusted at all?

  Mairwen Grace stands there, toes dug into the Devil’s Forest, eyes shut, and the wind shakes her hair even as it shakes the canopy of autumn leaves. She is terrified, suddenly, and trying to bury the fear.

  “Mairwen, I don’t know what’s happening,” Haf murmurs.

  Mair snaps her head up, looks down at her feet. Spring-green tendrils curl out of the dirt to tease at her toes and ankles, blooming even smaller star-shaped purple flowers.

  • • •

  SUNSET IS AN ELABORATE TRICK tonight. Wispy clouds tumble along a horizon scratched with vibrant pink, and the sky is the rich purple that used to put Baeddan Sayer in mind of violas but now only reminds him of his blood.

  He leans in the lee of the church, disappeared in shadows, awaiting the Grace witch.

  Arthur Couch, tall and mean and bright as the morning star, runs interference for him, standing between Baeddan and the rest of the village, on one cocked hip and drinking from a mug of wine. He offers some to Baeddan, who drinks it fast as water. The tartness lingers on his tongue as if the wine has a life of its own.

  Baeddan cannot close his eyes, or all of this will vanish. He’ll be back in the burning heart of the forest. The Bone Tree twisting all around him, tiny threads of roots piercing his ankles and wrists, penetrating the skin over his ribs, looping and winding through his bones in a ferocious agony. The forest ate his flesh and bones, spat him out as this thing, this devil with nonsense songs and lullabies looping in his imagination, faces and names confused together, and that great need pushing him on and on. The words find themselves, and he understands them, when he listens: Find the saint, the saint, the saint. Find him.

  It’s difficult, nearly impossible, for Baeddan to look at even Arthur Couch, who was not the saint, never the saint, and do anything besides strike. When Rhun Sayer arrives in the village square, dark and handsome in fresh, fitting clothes, the anointed saint, Baeddan cannot breathe for the compulsion racking his heart. He thrusts his fists into his eyes, grinding painfully until starbursts explode in the darkness, until he sees streaks and spots of white and blurred red.

  The hiss and grind of the crowd talking, shifting, waiting, drinking, setting out food and dragging long tables into place, children yelling, running feet, all of it swarms together in a rush like the rush of blood in his ears, like a roaring wind blowing through the corrupted branches of the Bone Tree. It overwhelms him. He chews his own teeth, grinding, clicking, clicking, oh yes—the click of teeth and tiny branches, the click of delicate hooves, click, click, click—

  “Baeddan Sayer.”

  He shudders. Tendrils of forest magic tickle at his face.

  “Baeddan,” she says again. Mairwen Grace. He looks wildly at her, then snatches the scarf tied across her chest, dragging her nearer, and kisses her.

  There come gasps and protestations from all around, but not from Mairwen, who allows it, who holds his face, thumbs stroking his temples. She is a piece of him, his heart, and Baeddan can breathe again, can think about things other than dragging the saint to the altar so his bones can be tied down, so his bones can be made the flesh of the forest. The Bone Tree rises in his mind, growing between them, lashing their hearts together.

  The voice of the forest quiets.

  She jerks back. Her eyes—oh, they are so many delicate brown shades, darkening together, blackening, he is sure.

  His heart pounds. Mairwen Grace tightens the scarf crossed over her chest, tucking it more firmly around her waist.

  She faces the village. “I am Mairwen Grace,” she calls. “You all know my name, but so did the Devil’s Forest. It knew me. It recognized me, for I have the blood of Grace witches and the blood of Carey Morgan, the twenty-fifth saint, running through my veins.” Mairwen touches her mouth, bringing her fingers away with blood.

  “Because of my blood, I was safe in the forest, and I found its secret.”

  Baeddan stands abruptly, knowing she means him. He bares his teeth, hungry.

  Arthur Couch appears at his right, Rhun Sayer at his left. Each young man puts a hand on his shoulder, and Baeddan shivers at the flow of binding power between them all. It itches under his skin.

  Mairwen continues. “We three found the Bone Tree, where Baeddan Sayer has survived these ten years, bound to the forest, the sacrifice we sanctified and sent inside to run and die. For that is the true destiny of the Three Graces saint: to become the forest devil until his seven years are up.”

  The crowd mutters and grumbles, staring at him, at Baeddan. They don’t want to believe. Some point. Some make signs against evil.

  “This is Baeddan Sayer, or what’s left of him.” Mairwen’s voice is hot in his ears, and he sees flashes of who he was before: laughing, merry, dancing, a boy ready to face his destiny.

  “What makes you the best, Baeddan Sayer?” the lord asks. Baeddan is the third boy to answer, and he has no idea what to say.

  He shrugs and smiles his best charming smile. “I don’t know if I am, my lord, but I know I’m willing to try, and die, for Three Graces. If that’s what it takes.”

  “What’s left of all of us,” Baeddan sings quietly.

  The Grace witch—his witch—glances back at him, then goes to the nearest bench and lifts one side, dragging it loudly across the cobblestones. She drops it and climbs onto it. Rhun moves immediately to her so she can balance
with a hand on his shoulder. Around them, the faces of villagers stare wide-eyed as skulls, blanched and eager, frightened, excited, and hungry, hungry, hungry.

  “Here is what I know,” Mairwen says, putting her hands out. “We went into the forest, found Baeddan, and at the altar in the roots of the Bone Tree we made a charm to bind our bargain. I know the saints don’t die immediately: They are bound to the tree, their hearts sacrificed to the heart of the forest. I know once there was a god of the forest, but that god is gone. Dead, or vanished, or fled, I cannot say. The story isn’t the whole story.”

  “How long will your charm last?” says a bearded man wearing a dull yellow jacket.

  Baeddan digs his strong fingers between two stones of the square.

  “I don’t know, but not long,” Mairwen answers. “The forest has no heart.”

  Mairwen is a pillar of light standing over them all, the setting sun making a torch of her brambled hair. Her bare feet are streaked with dirt, and Baeddan understands why the two of them are the only people in Three Graces without footwear of any kind: the forest, the forest, the forest.

  “We should let it end,” Arthur Couch says. Baeddan agrees.

  “We can’t,” calls a gangly woman with sprouting black hair.

  “We shouldn’t,” responds the woman beside her—her sister, Baeddan knows, but he cannot remember their names.

  Arthur joins Mairwen on the bench. “Look at us. Three Graces never changes. We never change. So we don’t live. This place might as well be dead! Nobody risks anything, but without risk, there’s no life. If nothing burns, then nothing burns.”

  “Burning hurts,” calls Beth Pugh. Others nod around her, but plenty frown, plenty grip each other’s hands and hold tight to their families.

  “So does love,” Arthur calls out in irritation.

  “Since when do we listen to this boy?”

  Baeddan doesn’t see who calls it, but Arthur makes a dismissive hand gesture. “Since I ran into the Devil’s Forest and survived, Dar.”

  “We live. We love,” says the lord with the curling brown hair. “We know the risk of death, Arthur. It is possible to understand risk and danger without flinging oneself into it.”

  Arthur shakes his head. “It’s a vicarious understanding. You understand through the saint, only that one night. Don’t you all remember the tension, the anticipation last night? When else do you feel so deeply?”

  Mairwen touches his arm. “There’s more. The whole story should be told before we make choices.”

  “Do you remember the whole story?” Arthur asks. His irritability makes Baeddan laugh.

  Aderyn Grace asks, “How did you bind the bargain, Mairwen?”

  “Yes!”

  “Tell us!”

  Mairwen puts her right arm in the air. “This charm. Binding myself, Arthur, Rhun, to the Bone Tree.”

  “Does it mean the bargain can be met without losing one of our boys?” Alis Sayer asks, glancing at Baeddan.

  “No.” The tired voice is Rhun’s. He doesn’t join his friends on the bench, but merely shakes his head. “There are twenty-five skulls on the Bone Tree.”

  Gasps sound everywhere, and cries of shock.

  Baeddan closes his eyes. His ribs ache, his fingers dig at the cobblestones. He grinds his jaw. “They’re all dead!”

  Those near enough to hear him fall silent.

  “Baeddan?” It’s Mairwen, leaning around him. She touches his temple.

  “Don’t you see? Don’t you remember?” He clutches his head, backing away from them all. Baeddan shakes his head and bares his teeth again, eyes tightly shut. Their skulls laugh at him, twisted to the Bone Tree. He snarls, and shouting breaks out: questions and accusations, both hard and tremulous.

  “Stop. Baeddan.”

  Mairwen catches his face again. Behind her is her mother.

  Baeddan remembers Addie Grace, and as he stares at her bright brown eyes, her dark hair, her still hands and round hips, at the certainty in the shape of her mouth, he thinks of her when he was a boy. When she was sweeter and sadder, heavy with Carey Morgan’s child.

  Carey Morgan, the saint before him.

  “Do you know, Addie?” Baeddan says in a growling voice he likes but hardly recognizes—it is the voice of the forest devil, the voice of the stalker, the killer, the monster bound to the Bone Tree. “I saw Carey Morgan last, when I ran, when I was your saint. He hunted me, green and sick yellow, horns on his head and claws and sharp teeth! He stalked behind me, one step at a time, teased me and scared me, and when it was nearly dawn he dragged me to the Bone Tree and . . .” Baeddan raises his arm, hand out like claws, as if he holds some large man by the neck. “Ah! He cut my chest open! And the forest grew out of me. Oh, it hurt, it hurt, and . . . he was . . .”

  Mairwen puts her hands on his bare chest, smoothing down along the furrows of scabbing and old scars. “My father was alive until you took his place. You became the devil after him.”

  Sucking a ragged breath, Baeddan nods, and says it louder for all those listening. “He was alive until ten years ago. Carey Morgan lived as the forest devil until I took his place, and his bones were strapped to the Bone Tree, his skull hung with all the others!” Baeddan laughs, desperate, delighted. “All the others!”

  “Is that how the bargain is kept?” Mairwen asks, as if she does not already know.

  “Yes, yes. A sacrifice every seven years, a life to bind it to the Bone Tree, so the power roots into the land, spreading like a disease throughout the valley.”

  “How do you know?” asks Aderyn Grace.

  “It’s the only way. There must be a heart!”

  Murmurs of uncertainty and disbelief scatter throughout the villagers. They’ve all turned to shadow as the sun vanishes, leaving only the pale glow of the creamy horizon.

  “Aren’t you the devil? Tricking us?” asks a young girl. Brave, though her chin lifts defiantly and her hands are clenched against fearful trembling. The small tawny girl who screamed at him from the square.

  Baeddan shudders and crouches, hunkering down like the monster he looks. He gouges his chest with sharp nails and nods. “I am the devil, pretty girl, yes. Yes.”

  The girl keeps her brave face, and a boy as tan as she but taller and older, asks, “But sometimes the runner lives.”

  Other voices take up the protest.

  “Some live!”

  “John!”

  “Col Sayer! Griffin!”

  “Tom Ellis!”

  “Marc Argall!”

  “I don’t know! I don’t know!” Baeddan cries. “But someone dies. The saint dies, because the saint runs in anointed for the tree! It is how I knew John Upjohn and—and Rhun Sayer. They were already bound to the Bone Tree when they ran into the forest.” Baeddan covers his eyes, then his ears, as the villagers ask a dozen questions. Rhun Sayer joins him, kneeling at his side. Rhun’s shoulder touches his, and Baeddan grinds his fists into his ears.

  • • •

  MAIRWEN IS ENERGIZED AND WILD, eyes too wide, unable to breathe through her nose, but only suck in air like she’s tasting it all, needing the flavor of everything. The forest whispers her name again and again. She feels it like a thread of lightning from the thorns growing over her heart, down into her viscera.

  She asks her mother to explain the charm to everyone: death, life, Grace witches in between; explain the blessing shirt and anointing. Aderyn does so, and it is little surprise to most folks, who’ve seen the Grace witches charm the square and sing blessings for their entire lives. The anointing oil is made from herbs collected from the edge of the forest, the fat and bones of the previous Slaughter Moon’s horse sacrifice, and a drop of Grace witch blood. That is how she was taught by her mother, who was taught by her own mother, and back and back until the bloodline sprang from the elder two Grace witches.

  “What else did your mother teach you, that isn’t in the story?” Mair asks.

  Her mother studies her, a familiar impatience on her face.
“That the devil is a god, the old god of the forest, as you said, and that the saint goes in to keep the heart of the bargain strong. That all of us, our bloodline, are called into the forest finally, when it is our time to stay there. And . . . that a Grace witch can undo it all.”

  “I’ve always heard the call,” Mairwen tells everyone. “Since I was a child. Because my father was already part of the forest. His heart.”

  “You risked undoing it all by going in,” Aderyn says.

  “If I hadn’t, Rhun would be dead.”

  Nobody is willing to argue with that. Not yet.

  But the town does argue over Baeddan’s insistence that all the saints have died, even those who ran back out. They left the valley because their memories were too terrible, because they longed for further adventure, and would never, ever return without telling their families! Some say perhaps others died, strangers. Or it’s the hearts of the Grace witches from the past two hundred years binding the charm in between saints. Or Baeddan is simply wrong—look at him, how broken he is. None agree. Lord Vaughn says he’ll look through his family’s books for information, but he doesn’t know if it will help.

  Without the old god to ask, Mairwen wonders if there’s any way to know. Except to walk back inside. To remember. Her stomach churns as she listens to the voice of the forest in her mind and heart.

  Mairwen Grace. Mairwen. Daughter of the forest.

  The townsfolk ask her the same questions again and again, and she answers, again and again, though the answers never change. She doesn’t remember enough for more.

  She’s starving, and as bread and meat are brought out, as rosemary potatoes fill the air with savory smells, Mair stands apart, breathing hard, not quite able to be a piece of the whole. Of all people, it’s Arthur who takes Baeddan to the trough of meat and aids him in selecting a piece to devour. Arthur remains all sharp edges but seems less interested in stabbing people indiscriminately. Mairwen can’t help but like it. Rhun stays beside her, solid and silent, unsmiling. She touches her shoulder to his. She shivers, but isn’t cold.