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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 21


  Baeddan peers through the dim torchlight. “I don’t remember you.”

  “I wasn’t born when you ran,” Elis whines.

  The smile of delight on Baeddan’s face makes Elis—and Rhun—smile a little in return. Baeddan says, “Something new!” reaching to poke at Elis’s cheek. Arthur scoots nearer to Rhun, so their arms brush when either moves.

  “Do you hear the forest?” Rhun murmurs, head tilted toward Arthur.

  “No. You do?” Arthur spits a curse. He grabs Rhun’s knee, fingers biting through the wool trousers. “I won’t let you go back in.”

  He studies Arthur’s face, his pressed lips and furrowed brow, the certainty in his blue eyes, and remembers—

  “Stop it! I’m not letting you die here!”

  “I don’t want to die, but if it’s that or you do, I’d rather die a thousand times.”

  “So would I, you idiot. Why should you get the satisfaction?”

  The devil laughs his high, looping laugh and cries, “Oh, you will both die, for trying to die for each other! The forest is whispering so many things, and your battle tastes so good.”

  Arthur raises his eyebrows in surprise. Rhun grabs his hand.

  The sun is minutes from rising, but the devil blocks their path.

  Rhun’s throat aches and his chest heaves; beside him Arthur bends, spitting blood onto the dead ground. The Bone Tree rules over this grove, and over the entire forest, like a king crowned with moonlight and robed in the bones of twenty-five dead boys.

  Rhun closes his eyes.

  Arthur says, “It’s the devil’s turn to die.”

  Mairwen bares her teeth. “You aren’t helping, Arthur Couch!”

  “Baeddan Sayer is already dead,” Arthur says. “I’m sorry, devil, but you are.”

  “Dead, dead, dead and breathing,” the devil hisses.

  “Stop remembering,” Arthur says, shuddering.

  Rhun puts his hands on the altar, sweeping dry vines off its surface and flaking blood and ancient black rot. “The forest needs your heart,” moans the devil beside him.

  “I can’t stop,” Rhun answers. “It’s pressing against me, but if I go inside the forest, it will end.”

  “Listen to me instead of the forest. Listen to Baeddan with your little brother, and all the family.”

  “I’ll try.”

  “I’m not leaving your side.”

  “I’m not leaving your side, now or ever, Rhun Sayer. Do you hear me?”

  “I’ll hold you to it, Arthur.”

  Arthur lifts his chin, glaring through a smear of blood staining his eyebrow and dripping into his left eye.

  In front of the whole Sayer clan, Arthur puts his pale, strong hand on Rhun’s cheek, and Rhun breathes carefully, thinking of nothing but the touch, nothing but the sounds of conversation, someone laughing. It’s good, and he’s here, alive.

  “Let’s go find Mair,” Arthur says.

  • • •

  THE NIGHT IS COLD, AND Mair huddles against the sheep fence. Her face is sticky from tears, her eyes swollen, but she breathes calmly now. With her eyes closed, she can hear the forest whispering at her, calling her.

  Mairwen Grace. Daughter of the forest.

  All she smells is her own blood, and sweet manure and dry grass. There is rain on the wind too.

  She reaches out, shivering, and grabs the grass. She pulls herself forward, crawling, toward the forest. It’s where she belongs. And unlike John Upjohn, it’s where she wants to be. The heart of the forest, curled against the Bone Tree’s roots; they will be her cradle against the wind. There she can sleep, finally relax. She is so very weary.

  “Mairwen!”

  She stops.

  It was not the voice of the forest.

  “Mairwen!”

  Rhun.

  She shudders hard; yes, yes, the saint can go with her into the forest. Together they will put a heart in the—in the—

  she lifts the veil and says

  “Mair, is that you?”

  Arthur’s voice, joining Rhun.

  Their boots hit the earth hard, as if they’re running for her, and she feels the vibration through the valley.

  Mairwen climbs to her feet. The forest needs her.

  “I’m coming,” she whispers.

  “Mair,” gasps Arthur, and then Rhun touches her hand.

  An ache cracks her bones. The thorns on her chest seem to tighten and grow at the same time. The forest whispers such a demanding song that her knees falter and she slips to the ground again, crouching there. She shakes, head lowered, teeth clenched, fighting the forest, bleeding, until arms come around her. She lets herself be lifted off the earth and cradled against Rhun’s chest. He walks away from the village, and Arthur is with them the whole way home.

  • • •

  ALL THREE TUCK THEMSELVES UP into the dark, secluded loft in the Grace house. Mairwen farthest in, against the wall, where the thatched roof meets the limewash. Rhun holds her freezing hands while Arthur piles blankets on her, hovering like a worried old man.

  “Do you hear it?” she whispers, eyes closed, for there is little to see but the glint of their eyes and shadowy outlines.

  “I do,” Rhun says, and Arthur at the same time says, “No.”

  She clutches Rhun’s hands, then frees one to reach for Arthur. “Baeddan?”

  Rhun says, “With my mom. She, and the whole Sayer clan, can handle him. He seems calmer, after eating, and after being around them all.”

  “He told a story he remembers from before the forest,” Arthur says as he plays with Mair’s fingers, spreading them out, tracing the length of each.

  “Good.” Mairwen pulls both young men toward her. “I am so tired,” she murmurs.

  “What happened?” Rhun does not give ground, remaining in his awkward crouch, half on the mattress, half off. “I hear the forest, but it did not do this to me.”

  Irritated he won’t just cuddle against her, let her sleep, she says, “I spoke to my mother, and she knew they all died. She knew you had to die, Rhun! She says Grace witches have always known the saint dies! It’s our duty to make sure they’re anointed, to hold up the bargain. We lie.”

  Arthur snorts. “I knew it would be like this.”

  Rhun slides him a glare, but the darkness swallows it.

  “I did,” Arthur continues. “We should’ve set fire to the Bone Tree and then we’d be forced to make a new bargain. One we know all the rules to. We have to break it, even if it can’t be remade. Nothing else will stop this hold it has on you. I’ll go back in and do it now,” he boasts. But he, too, is tired. Drained the way Mairwen is drained. He leans closer to Mair in order to press the back of her hand to his heart.

  “We might have to,” Rhun says.

  “Not tonight,” Mairwen murmurs, tugging at them again.

  This time Rhun takes a moment to remove his boots and climbs in beside her, opening his arm for her to curl against his side. Arthur hesitates. “Do you think I can stop both of you, if you decide to listen to the forest?”

  “I won’t leave you,” Rhun says, mirroring Arthur’s earlier promise.

  Mairwen nuzzles her blankets. “It’s quieter behind your buzzing. Come closer.”

  Underneath his spikes, Arthur wants nothing more than to be loved by these two people. Something tells him, though, that a future is as impossible now as it was before.

  “C’mon, Arthur,” Mairwen murmurs.

  He stretches next to Rhun, between both of them and the rest of the world.

  • • •

  MOONLIGHT CRAWLS ALONG THE TWISTED black branches overhead, glowing along shelves of fungus and patches of scarlet lichen. They’re all headed toward each other: Arthur and Rhun, muddy and damp, follow a bird woman who shrieked at them, singing songs created of Mairwen’s name, until they agreed to follow; Mairwen pants with a heady combination of exhilaration and fear on the heels of a devil who grins at her with sharp teeth, touches her with tenderness, and laughs
and laughs and laughs.

  “There, there!” crows the devil, throwing his arms out. “I told you, Mairwen Grace, that I could find your saint.”

  The bird woman flares her wings to turn, fleeing for her life, and Arthur skids to a halt. Rhun puts a hand on a nearby tree, shoulders heaving because of the wound on his thigh slowing him down. “Mair,” Arthur says, but all Rhun sees is the devil. He notches his ready arrow.

  Even as Arthur and Mairwen slam together in a relieved embrace, the devil lashes out, and Rhun shoots.

  His aim is true as always, and the arrow hits the devil’s shoulder, piercing his black leather coat.

  “Rhun!” cries Mairwen.

  The devil roars, tearing the arrow free, only to be hit with another.

  Arthur hears the note of distress in Mairwen’s voice—he hears her fear not only for Rhun, but for the devil, and anger makes him shove her away to grab his last long knife. He joins Rhun in the attack.

  Everywhere the devil’s skin breaks, purple blood bursts forth, and green vines, tendrils curling and trailing tiny leaves and tinier petals.

  The devil is unhurt by the wounds, though he screams and roars, though he bleeds. The devil stabs Rhun with his own arrow and knocks Arthur back with a hard punch. Rhun brings out his ax, and the devil catches his wrist, squeezing almost hard enough to break bone. The devil grins, dancing in place. “You will taste good, saint. You will fill this forest with life again.”

  Arthur leaps onto the devil’s back, arms around his neck. The devil swings, throwing himself around and against Rhun.

  “Stop it, now,” orders Mairwen, dragging at the devil’s arm.

  The devil steps toward her. “Go, get out of here,” she says to the boys. “Keep running.”

  “No,” the devil growls, pushing her away to face Rhun again.

  “Go!” Mairwen screams.

  Rhun barely hears through his focus. The devil is unaffected by blood loss and injury, looming over him and Arthur with smears of blood over his face. There are antlers in his hair and thorns growing from his chest, and his black eyes are impossibly dark, reflecting nothing of life or light back.

  “We aren’t leaving you,” Arthur says.

  But Mairwen reaches around the devil and slaps her hand flat against his chest. “Baeddan Sayer. Stop.”

  Something shifts in the devil, and the devil blinks. Awareness, like a man might have, not a monster, is the thing Rhun sees, and it terrifies him more than anything else, though he does not know why.

  The devil shakes like a wet dog. “Mairwen, Mairwen, I cannot stop I will eat them I want their bones I want to be free!”

  Mair slips around to the devil’s front, nudging Rhun away with her boot. “I know. I know. Take me away from here. Let me help you, Baeddan.”

  And Rhun hears it, suddenly: The name penetrates his battle rush. His cousin, the saint, his beautiful cousin who taught him to love everything. He sees it in the line of the devil’s crooked Sayer nose, the shape of his shoulders. “Oh my God,” Rhun breathes.

  “God!” echoes the devil in despair.

  Rhun twists his wrist out of Arthur’s hand. “It’s not possible.”

  Arthur says, “It’s a trick. It must be.”

  “Saint!” cries the devil, and Rhun leaps away. The devil claws at the saint, tearing at Rhun’s back.

  Rhun’s knees give out and he falls through a fire of pain. Arthur barely catches him, and Mairwen slaps the devil’s chest again, demanding his attention.

  “Go! I’ll be fine—I have been these last hours. Trust me,” she says to Arthur.

  “Damn it,” Arthur says, and helps Rhun up, running with him, away from Mairwen.

  They crash off, limping and tripping, and Mairwen says, “Baeddan, show me the most beautiful place in your forest.”

  “You imagine beauty in a place like this?” His voice is grating and low.

  “You’re beautiful.”

  Baeddan’s eyes catch moonlight, revealing stars in them: endless light, cold and distant. But like the stars, they make her long to be nearer.

  He growls, and she feels it under her palms.

  The devil moves so quickly she gasps. He’s a dozen paces away, crouched, glaring at her. “You’re tearing me apart. The forest whispers one thing, you whisper another, and I want—I want to listen to you. But the forest is my devil. The forest is all I am. It is my bones and heart and . . . How can I listen to you?”

  “I love the Devil’s Forest,” Mairwen confesses. “If it is your bones, I love your bones. If it is your heart, I—I love your heart.”

  “Witch!” he cries, and runs back to her, takes her hand, and pulls her with him. They dash through the forest, and the forest bends out of their way. Trees lean aside, branches curl into an arched corridor, roots withdraw and sink into the earth to clear the path. Mairwen’s boots fly over the ground, her heart beats fast as sparrow wings, and the devil holding her hand laughs brightly.

  He takes her to a grove of silver trees, naked to the sky, reaching slender branches up and up. There is no scatter of leaves on the forest floor, no ungainly roots, no underbrush. It is empty except for slender white vines, looping lazily among the trees, spiraling up trunks and dripping from the low branches, covering the earth in curls and knots.

  “This?” Mairwen says. It is not what she imagined when she asked for beauty, but the starkness is inspiring.

  “There is room for me here,” the devil says, “and the trees are quiet.”

  She cannot tell if it is pity or love she feels.

  Then the devil—Baeddan Sayer—smiles wickedly. “And also this.” He spreads his hands, standing in a cross, and his coat opens over his bloody, strong chest. He leans his head back, and at the tips of his clawed fingers tiny flowers of light bloom.

  Mair gasps.

  The lights bob in the air, blinking in a heartbeat rhythm. More appear, all around them. Mairwen turns slowly, amazed. When she’s made a full revolution, Baeddan is right before her, and he takes her hands. Lifting one eyebrow in charming invitation, he sweeps back and pulls her into a dance.

  No music plays; there is only moonlight and vines and a gentle wind shaking the bare trees. There is only their footsteps and the brush of her heavy blue dress against his legs.

  It is as beautiful as she’d hoped.

  Baeddan’s hand is cold around hers, and those wicked thorns hooking out of his collarbones are very near her face as they dance. She smells blood, earthy and thick, like the ground after an autumn rain; cold granite in his breath; a shadowy sweetness she wants to taste again. Her front is colder than her back, just as it was when she stood half in the forest and half out the other day. She leans nearer to him, dancing carefully, but with a lightness she’s unused to, as if in this moment nothing else matters.

  Rhun wakes first, as the sun rises. Mairwen sleeps with her head on Rhun’s shoulder, an arm stretched over him to rest on Arthur’s sternum. Rhun opens his eyes, warm and comfortable with his two most beloved friends on either side of him. Sunlight creeps in through the small square window, and Arthur’s hand is under his own; they curled together in the night. He turns his head. Arthur’s face is right there, lashes pale gold and fine on his cheeks. His nostrils flare slightly as he breathes sharp and wakes up, eyes flashing open onto Rhun’s.

  The spark in them is anger, as always, but Arthur does not look away this time, or pretend he doesn’t realize how intimate this situation is. He holds still.

  “You grounded me here,” Rhun whispers. His mouth is tacky from sleep.

  Arthur lifts his eyebrows and turns his hand under Rhun’s, clasping it. The thorns of Rhun’s bracelet prick Arthur’s bare wrist. “I won’t let you fade away, Rhun Sayer. Or transform into a monster. Or turn bitter. You are the best, and—no, listen. You’re the best to me. I only care for what I care for—you know that—and I care for you. And Mairwen. I know what this valley is now, and who I am, and I know who you are and what matters. I know. I won’t let
go of that, and I won’t let go of you.”

  Rhun nods. He grips Arthur’s hand and tries not to show too much of his heart. His life was over, and then he learned everything was a lie, except this is true and always has been true: He loves Arthur Couch.

  From his shoulder Mairwen sighs in her sleep. Both he and Arthur glance at her. Her skin is splotched and pale, and the hollows around her eyes are too purple. Her lips bloodless. Her hair lank and messy. He remembers his dream, even the part that wasn’t his own memory: She danced with the forest devil as if she belonged there.

  “We have to keep her safe too,” he says to Arthur. He hugs her tight to his side and grunts at a strange poke where her chest presses to him.

  “What?” Arthur asks, leaning up.

  Rhun shifts, and though Mairwen clings to him, he gently rolls her over, and as she wakes groggily and with an uncomfortable sneer, he peels off her scarf. It’s wound behind her neck, crossed over her chest, and tied around her waist again. Blood smears her skin below it, and is crusted to the scarf.

  A row of delicate thorns cut up out of her skin, along the sweep of her collarbones.

  Arthur hisses over Rhun’s shoulder. Rhun is stunned, frozen, and Mairwen finally wakes fully, stretching. She winces as her skin pulls tight, and one hand flies to the thorns. They’re tiny, deep brown but fading to a reddish tip like rose thorns.

  “Your eyes,” Arthur says.

  Rhun looks up and he sees it too: Mairwen’s eyes are blacker throughout. As if while she slept pieces of brown were plucked out and replaced with shards of darkness.

  “What about my eyes?” she asks with measured calm, too calm, the calm of a person who is anything but.

  “They’re darker,” Rhun says.

  Mairwen sits, head barely clearing the low thatched ceiling. She fists her hands in her lap. “I want to see. Your mother has a mirror, doesn’t she, Rhun?”

  “Are we different?” Arthur asks before Rhun can do more than nod.

  Fear twists Rhun up, and he turns to Arthur, despite having just spent several moments gazing into Arthur’s eyes. But Arthur looks as fine as always. Except for his wrist.