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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 2


  And higher up still, Sy Vaughn’s stone manor grips the mountainside like a hunting kite.

  This is why she climbed the wall as a child: to see Three Graces mapped before her, to feel the warmth of recognition fill her lungs. To see her home, and its unchanging beauty, and imagine herself an intrinsic part, instead of somehow outside of it all for being a witch and a saint’s daughter. Between the town and the forest, pulled in both directions so that she can never settle down.

  She has climbed the wall with Rhun and Haf and Arthur so many times. Rhun crows and spreads his arms as if to embrace the whole of it; Haf balances too carefully, compensating for her fear of falling again; Arthur walks easily, nose up, pretending not to check his steps, as if it all comes naturally to him, as if he were the best.

  Where are the three of them? she wonders. Haf with her sisters, washing diapers and braiding baskets or hair or both, charging after chickens. Rhun in a field for the harvest, no doubt, in the center of all the people he can manage, laughing his hearty loud laugh that makes others mirror it. Arthur—alone, she assumes, with a cute sneer—hunting up the mountains to the south, determined to bring back a buck all on his own, or more in his brace of rabbits than any other hunter.

  Or, because there’s a sick horse, everything has changed, and she knows nothing of where her friends might be.

  If something is wrong with the bargain, did her father die in vain? And Baeddan Sayer, and—

  Mairwen jumps to the ground, catching herself with a hand on the earth.

  Her mother’s house is the farthest out of town in the north. Surrounded by a fence of logs and stone, the Grace house is two odd-shaped stories with a long wing for herbal work and a separate one-room workshop. One of the oldest local homes, its hearth is made of a single gray stone as long as a man, set down two hundred years ago by the first Graces to find themselves near the Devil’s Forest. The upper level has been added twice, once for grandchildren and again after it burned down in Mairwen’s great-grandmother’s time. In the yard they keep chickens and three milk goats, and her mother’s herb garden overgrows the rear field. A cluster of gooseberry bushes snarl over the wall near the front door.

  Mair expects Aderyn to be in the yard where the herb-fire burns, stirring her iron pot for soap or charms or maybe just laundry, but instead angry steam hisses in waves where the abandoned pot has boiled over.

  Just then a scream cuts through the pleasant groaning wind. It comes from inside the house.

  She runs.

  Her bones jar with every hard step as she careens down the slope, skirts tangled around her shins until she wrenches them up and sprints through the gate into the yard. The front door gapes open and Mair flies through, stopping abruptly in the dim entrance.

  A single large room of pale daub and dark wood, dominated by the hearth and kitchen space, the bottom floor is usually full of neighbors at any time of day. But now every chair and bench has been haphazardly shoved to the sides of the room and piled atop the heavy dining table, leaving a wide space of only braided rugs. In the center, Aderyn Grace and her best friend, Hetty Pugh, support the pregnant Rhos Priddy between them as the younger mother-to-be grits her teeth and moans. The three women take slow steps around the rug. Rhos pants, then strains against the grip of the older women. Aderyn says, “You’ve got to keep moving, if you can, and we’ll get you through this one and put some tea in you.”

  Hetty Pugh shoves black hair out of her face. “One foot, then the other, rosebud.”

  Rhos, four years older than Mairwen and only seven months into her first pregnancy, nods frantically, cheeks red, sweat darkening the sunshine curls around her face. Like the sweat turning that gray stallion black.

  Mairwen hesitates, one hand on the doorframe, and reminds herself birth is difficult work even in Three Graces. She’s heard the cries, boiled water, mopped up blood. It happens here often, for the Grace heritage makes their house with its ancient hearthstone a lucky place to be born. But this is too soon.

  “Mother?” Mairwen finally says, as Rhos’s breath evens out and the girl sags. Both Aderyn and Hetty turn sharply.

  “Mair!” Hetty says. “Go to Nona Sayer and send her here. She might know something from outside the valley to help.”

  “What’s happening?” Mairwen asks, still hovering.

  Her mother slips an arm around Rhos’s wide middle and leads the girl to one of the low rocking chairs. “Rhos is having some pains, is all,” Aderyn says gently. Her dark eyes meet Mair’s, and Mair feels the lie settle in her guts. But it’s a lie for Rhos, not her. Aderyn soothes Rhos with tender fingers patting the girl’s hair. Again Mairwen is reminded of the gray horse and her own ministrations.

  Unlike Aderyn’s unruffled surety, Hetty is furious. Her freckles stand out more than usual against bloodless white skin, taking years off the woman’s thirty-odd.

  Mair says as calmly as she can, “Mother, I need to speak with you,” and Aderyn immediately gives Rhos over to Hetty and ushers Mairwen back into the yard.

  “One of the horses is sick,” Mair says in a gasp. “And this! What does it mean?”

  “I can’t know yet. Maybe nothing too much,” Aderyn answers, wiping her brow. “Go for Nona, and then up the mountain to find out if Lord Sy is home from his summer travels yet, and tell him, and bring him down.”

  Mairwen goes in a swirl of skirts and tangle of fear.

  • • •

  RHUN SAYER PUTS DOWN HIS scythe and crouches amid the cut barley. Sun beats down on his bare, broad shoulders, and sweat mixes with field dust and bits of seed to itch along his spine and behind his ears and where the buttons of his trousers rub his stomach. All around him men and women grunt and sing “swing, child, swing” to hold on to an even rhythm. This glinting haze only happens late in the afternoons on harvest days, when the lowering sun angles exactly to light up the dust tossed high from their work.

  Everyone expects Rhun to stand wide, sigh happily, and grin, to declare this day has been a good day and maybe start a new song, something rapid and merry. A tongue twister or ask-and-answer. It’s what he usually does, full of hard work and the promise of relief and hot meat and beer for dinner with his cousins and neighbors alive in the glare of low sunlight.

  But Rhun isn’t paying much heed to the haze or the chanting. He narrows his gaze onto the patch of dark, bent barley that he half sliced through. The stalks are spotted with pale freckles, ringed with blackening brown. He’s never seen anything like it, but he knows in his gut this is blight. Not a thing to be blamed on beetles or grasshoppers, but disease. Like the pox that sometimes crawls through the valley, marking temporary scars on the young and old, and leaving relief behind in its wake, for here nobody dies of such things.

  But some of this barley, Rhun thinks, is dead.

  An unfamiliar frown pulls at his lips. Unease flickers behind it, and Rhun huffs out a breath. He needs to tell somebody, even if it’s nothing but a strange outlier patch.

  “Rhun? Y’all right?” It’s Judith Heir, a woman five years older than him, as unused as the rest of them to a frown on the mouth of Rhun Sayer the Younger.

  Rhun knows it, and smiles. He’s a handsome boy, seventeen, with broad shoulders and the crooked nose that runs in his father’s family, and the brown skin and odd carmine flecks in his eyes he got from his practical, cranky mother, Nona. Otherwise, he’s symmetrical and large all around, wears whatever fits him and suits his day’s task, and ties his black spiral curls into tails and clubs, never hiding his face. “Yeah, just got a crick in my shoulder,” he says. For emphasis, he rolls his right shoulder dramatically, wincing. “I think I’ll run and go get a salve from Aderyn Grace.”

  “Surely,” Judith says, then mops her brow with her sleeve before hefting her scythe again.

  Quickly, Rhun puts his fist around the base of some of the patchy barley and tugs it out of the earth. Hooking his scythe over a post, he strides for the witch’s house, tapping dirt off the barley roots against his thig
h as he goes.

  Secrets are Rhun’s least favorite thing in the world, for how they taint everything with a prickly combination of hope and fear, but he is certain that at least immediately, it’s better to keep this discovery quiet. He’ll find Mair and show her, get her take. Let her be fascinated as she always is with the rare and different, and pull him along with her enthusiasm.

  Just the thought of her calms him: Mairwen Grace, the person he loves whom he is allowed to love.

  Wind from the north blows in over the Devil’s Forest. Rhun glances at the darkness cradled there, a horizon of black trees undulating under the wind like an angry ocean, with distant mountains behind. He pauses. The barley in his hand tingles, or perhaps that is a tickling unease in his palms, the urge to run, run, run.

  Someday.

  Rhun Sayer smiles a gentle, private smile, not performing anything but only for himself at the rightness of his future: Someday he’ll stand at the top of the pasture hill with the entire town, beside a bonfire, wearing the saint’s crown. And as the sun sets and the Slaughter Moon rises, he’ll be the one to dive into the forest like his cousin, and run—and likely die—for the valley. For all this goodness.

  The certainty of it comforts him as much as the thought of Mairwen did.

  But the wind reaches him, chilling the sweat on Rhun’s chest, and he realizes he left his shirt folded over the cart at the corner of the barley field. Awkward to knock on Aderyn Grace’s door without it, so he shifts his path toward home instead.

  • • •

  IN A CLEARING OF AUTUMN trees that glow under the late sun like a soothing family fire, Arthur Couch pinches the edges of fur in his fingers, right at the cuts he made at the rear ankles, and with a firm jerk, strips the entire skin off the rabbit he snared and hung.

  The tearing noise satisfies him, and the skin remains whole enough for several different uses. This rabbit died fast by his knife, not breaking its neck in the trap like many do, so the tiny neck bones should be intact enough for Mairwen.

  A hot flush creeps up Arthur’s pale ears at the thought of the last time he brought her bones. She tossed them into a large stinking barrel full of water and other small animal skeletons as if they weren’t a gift, as if it didn’t matter to her at all that it was him who brought them. He supposes it isn’t terribly special to bring dead things to a witch.

  Wind gusts high above him, bending the trees to loom over him like interested friends, but he hardly notices.

  The problem is that he wants it to matter, wants to be special still, to her. He used to be. She used to laugh at his jibes and wicked jokes; her eyes used to sparkle when his burned; she used to race with him and care as much as he did which of them won. Rhun never cared—Rhun never had to care. He’s so certainly the best boy, whatever he does is just what the best boy does, even if that’s lose a footrace to Arthur Couch. But Mairwen cared passionately. She hissed when she lost. She dared Arthur to put his hand in the forest. She smirked when he wouldn’t, yet.

  It has been nearly three years since they’ve been comfortable enough together to be mean, and he misses it. He misses her with a simple ache that wakes him up at night. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with her or if he wants to set her on fire.

  All he knows is why she stopped giving him her attention three years ago. Why things are tense with Rhun. Why he’s even more of an outsider than he was before.

  The answer is Rhun’s secret, though, and Arthur tries to bury it deep.

  But the only other thing that tugs regularly at Arthur’s thoughts is the next Slaughter Moon. Four years away. Four more years before he can show them all, the whole valley, the town, that he is not some fool ruined by his mother, that he is no liar, not weak or soft. He can be as good as Rhun. He can be the best.

  Arthur looks north, toward the Devil’s Forest, though he can’t see it. His heart beats hard and his hands fist. Arthur is a tall young man, and the sort of pale that burns in the sun. He’s lanky and strong, with blond hair he saws off in chunks whenever he loses his temper. It hasn’t been longer than his jawbone since he was eleven, and the ragged aspect ruins the pretty lines of his face exactly as he wishes. That rage burning in his blood keeps him skinny no matter what he eats, hollows out his cheeks to make his blue eyes too large, too cold. Always he carries enough knives for a seven-handed monster, as well as a woodsman’s ax.

  Suddenly Rhun Sayer bursts off the path from Three Graces, heading toward the Sayer homestead. Rhun sees Arthur and freezes, every handsome half-naked pound of him awkward and still as stone. Then he relaxes, forcing a smile that does not look forced. But Arthur can see it. See it and appreciate the effort, grateful at least they’re still friends.

  “Arthur! I’m getting a shirt and then going to find Mair. Do you want to come?”

  Gesturing at the rabbit carcass, Arthur says, “I have to cut away the best flesh to save and bury this first.”

  Rhun grimaces. He’s a hunter, sure, but he prefers roasting little creatures like this whole even if it ruins the bones. “I’ll grab my shirt and meet you here.”

  But Arthur’s eyes go to the clump of dying barley. “What’s that for?”

  Rhun taps the barley against his thigh again, then offers it to his friend.

  Arthur stares, not reaching to take it. “What’s wrong with it?”

  “Disease, I think.” Rhun angles the barley to better display the dark spots. “It was a clump of them.”

  Sucking in a breath so his teeth show, Arthur lifts his gaze to Rhun’s. “A momentary blight? Something to pass?”

  “Usually that just blows in and out overnight, doesn’t kill. We’ll find some waterlogged or bent with weariness, but always the grass stands up again under the full sun. Today was a good day. Not too much rain.”

  “This is different, then,” Arthur murmurs.

  “New,” Rhun says in a hushed tone, wavering between awe and fear.

  Unable to put his teeth away, Arthur smiles a rare, full-mouthed smile. “I like new things,” Arthur says.

  “Do you?”

  The challenge slices away Arthur’s smile and deadens the current between them. Arthur turns fully around and steps away. His shoulders roll as he works to sooth the tight knots pulling at his spine.

  To make up for it, Rhun puts his hand on Arthur’s back, firm and friendly, like any two young men might share. None of the tenderness Arthur is so afraid of.

  Arthur nods, accepting the silent apology. Together they study the barley. Arthur touches the stiff yellow hairs falling around the rows of seeds. He can barely feel them against the rough pad of his finger. New is not anything they’re much familiar with in Three Graces. Different is worse—he knows it from experience. From the boys who throw flowers at him still, ask if his mama took all his skirts with her when she ran away.

  “Something must be wrong with the bargain,” Arthur says with relish. He’s waited for a flaw to reveal itself for ten entire years.

  Rhun’s whole face tightens. “Do you think so? I was going to ask Mair.”

  “If it’s not a temporary blight—and you don’t think it is—it has to be a problem with the devil.”

  Scratching at the back of his neck, Rhun looks in the direction of the Devil’s Forest, through the rows of friendly trees. “Maybe because of what happened last time?”

  Both boys remember the last Slaughter Moon clearly, three years ago. It was John Upjohn they blessed and followed in a snaking dance over the fields; John who was tall and lean and fast; John who they watched vanish into the black forest. The boys remember the vigil hours, the howls from the forest, staring from a safe distance, and Lace Upjohn, who clutched her son’s tiny naming shirt to her chest as a protection charm, praying with Aderyn Grace and the sisters Pugh. They remember Mairwen as an ecstatic force between them, leaning up on her toes as if she’d be able to see farther if she were as tall as Rhun and Arthur. Grasping their shoulders in turn, back and forth. Arthur had fed off her energy, gritted his tee
th impatiently; Rhun had put his arm around her waist to ground her, to comfort himself.

  Too long past the harsh pink dawn John Upjohn did not emerge from the forest.

  Mair had stepped forward first when she spied a sleek shadow spill from the trees. Then Rhun had seen it, and Arthur, too. Hope had pricked in Arthur’s chest, blossoming sickly as he watched seventeen-year-old John crawl his way free, one of his hands torn off.

  “I never thought much about it,” Rhun says abruptly, avoiding Arthur’s look. Arthur knows why; they’d not been overly concerned by Upjohn because of what happened between them so shortly after.

  “Neither did I,” Arthur admits. “But everybody will now, if this is . . .” He points at the barley.

  Rhun takes a deep breath. Arthur can tell Rhun wants to touch him again, like he would touch Mair if she were present. For comfort, for reassurance. Just because he wants to. Rhun is the sort of person who needs contact with the people he loves, but he only ever avoids it around Arthur. One sign from Arthur and that will change, but Arthur doesn’t give it.

  Holding on to the barley with both hands, Rhun says, “It can’t be broken. The bargain. We need it.”

  “You need it, you mean.”

  “No, I . . .”

  Arthur huffs. “You can’t fulfill your destiny if there’s no bargain.”

  “That’s not why. I . . . I don’t want the troubles from outside our valley to come here. What we do is worth it. It’s how we keep ourselves safe and well.”

  “Not you,” Arthur points out. “You’ll be dead, or so changed by your run you leave, like all the surviving saints before you.”

  Rhun shrugs uncomfortably. “Maybe it won’t be me.”

  “It will be you,” Arthur says bitterly.