Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 22

  All three of them lift their wrists with the charm: The bracelets seem to have grown into their flesh. For Rhun and Arthur it’s a gentle melding, skin grown up against the braided hair and thorns and bone.

  Mairwen’s wrist is a gauntlet of hardened skin, several inches wide, reddish and brown like healthy bark. Her fingernails are tinged blue, but she says she’s not cold.

  “Why is this only happening to you?” Arthur asks, sounding as if he’s offended.

  “I’m the witch,” she whispers. “Our hearts already half belong to the Bone Tree. I was supposed to let Rhun die after I anointed him, but instead I gave the rest of my heart to the forest.”

  Rhun frowns and holds on to her shoulders, studying her face for more differences. He touches her hair, digging his fingers gently against her scalp. No crown of thorns or antlers that he can find, and he strokes down her neck. Her wide new eyes project uncertainty, which he has never seen in Mairwen Grace before. Rhun kisses her.

  Her hands flutter against his chest for a moment, then she settles them on his shirt. He looks, and her eyes have drifted closed.

  “Your heart wasn’t yours alone to give, Mairwen Grace,” Arthur says.

  • • •

  CLOUDS PULL HIGH ACROSS THE valley, peaceful and calm. The gray backdrop brings out gold in the fields. Mairwen puts herself between Rhun and Arthur as they leave the Grace house for the Sayer homestead, her hands in theirs.

  She is not afraid, though she senses she should be. She is excited, thrilled even, for the bargain she made must be working better than she thought. Maybe she can hold it, inside of her, the way Baeddan Sayer did, and perhaps it will last seven years without a death. Because Arthur is right: She couldn’t give all her heart to the forest. Too much is here, with Rhun and Arthur and Haf and her mother, and even Baeddan. All the people in Mairwen’s heart lending it greater strength, grounding it in the valley. Perhaps there will be a way to make this the permanent solution: Every time more than one person could be bound to the Bone Tree, and so no single person must die. Together, their hearts, their love, might be strong enough to overcome the need for sacrifice.

  Certainly Mairwen seems to be holding the heaviest portion, but she can take it. She was born for this, born to hold the blessing between life and death. Saints and witches.

  She laughs to herself, earning a frown from Arthur and an anxious glance from Rhun.

  “You sound like Baeddan,” Rhun says.

  That makes her stop so fast she swallows air, stumbling.

  The young men catch her by her elbows, leaning in protectively. She says, “I feel good, not mad, not confused like him.”

  It’s even true.

  Mair closes her eyes, shielded by her friends in a pocket of shade and solidarity. She listens. Her toes brush the grass, and the pulse of her heart thumps gently down into the earth. A cool breeze tickles the fringes of her hair, the tip of her nose, and her lips, her ears. She slides her hands into Rhun’s and Arthur’s again, and feels the heartbeat spread among them.

  From the earth rises a whisper, unlike a sound, more of a sensation thrilling through her blood. It does not whisper in words. It warms her belly and tightens her skin, especially along her spine and breasts. She desires this thing from the bowl of her hips.

  “Are you all right?” Rhun asks.

  She tilts her face toward his. Yes, Rhun Sayer would do. She would devour him and leave his bones at the altar.

  Mairwen gasps, wrenching away from both of them. They start toward her, but she shakes her head. “Stop, please,” she says, holding her hands to the sky. Oh, what she would give for a pure, hot beam of sunlight.

  “It is like Baeddan,” Arthur says. “Isn’t it? This binding is turning you more like him. Part of the forest.”

  “Something like that,” Mair admits, unmoving. But still it could work. She can take it. She can survive this.

  “Damn it.” Arthur strides to her and grips her shoulders, forcefully pulling her toward him. “This can’t happen. I’m not going to let it.”

  “You can’t stop it,” she whispers.

  He glares at Rhun, and Rhun says, “We’ll find a way. Mairwen, he’s right. We won’t let you die in my place.”

  Arthur’s mouth compresses. “Neither of you is dying. What do you eat and drink, what do you dream of, that makes you so willing to give everything for this bargain? Do you think I don’t understand how much it matters, that I want to let it take anything from this valley? Do you think I don’t care about babies dying or famine or bloody, pus-filled boils? I understand, but I won’t let it win. None of us is dying. Do you understand me? Or do I have to put it in your own language?”

  He kisses Mairwen, and she gasps at the abruptness and heat of it. Arthur’s kiss is different from before, not angry, despite his anger, but demanding something from her. Demanding she rise to meet him. If Arthur is fire, his kiss should burn and consume her, but instead it makes her want to live, too. Like he’s the powerful sunlight she wished for moments ago, and when his kiss ends, she’s standing again in the shade.

  Her mouth stays open, but she has no idea what to say. His kisses have always been a challenge or a dare, never their own conclusion.

  Arthur turns his eyes to Rhun, who steps back under the force in them. “You did this,” Arthur says. “You both made this thing happen, between the three of us. I thought it was only the forest, whatever exactly happened at the Bone Tree, but it was more inevitable than that, wasn’t it?” And Arthur grabs the front of Rhun’s jerkin and kisses him, too.

  Mairwen laughs, delighted. Her hands come together in one ferocious clap, and she folds them under her chin, watching. Arthur has no idea what he’s doing, clearly, and knocks his mouth against Rhun’s instead of using what he knows from kissing Mairwen. She swells with affection for both of them. Her blood flows smoother, losing a measure of thickness, and the throb in her collarbone feels more like bruises and grinding teeth than pain.

  The whispering is gone.

  Rhun tentatively puts his hands in Arthur’s hair, and Arthur leans away, jaw muscles shifting, pink flaring at the points of his cheekbones. He chews his bottom lip once, and Rhun smiles.

  With a huff, Arthur stomps away from them. He waves and snarls, “Just think about that, you suicidal idiots.”

  “Arthur.” Rhun starts after him, but Mairwen grabs his arm and turns them in a skipping, happy circle.

  “Stay with me, Rhun,” she murmurs, singsong. “He’ll be back. You know he will. He only has to find a way to gnaw up whatever he’s feeling and grow spikes over the top of it again.”

  “I don’t want him to grow spikes over it.” Rhun looks after Arthur, whose loping progress is fast taking him over the pasture hills toward Three Graces. His golden hair and skin and dark-brown jacket blend in with the autumn fields, and Mairwen likes thinking he fits in for once, finally.

  She says, “You like his spikes—I know you do—or you wouldn’t be so in love with him.”

  And the slow smile Rhun gives her is so full of blossoming joy and acknowledgment, for a moment Mairwen forgets everything else.

  • • •

  THE SAYER HOMESTEAD IS HOPPING with Sayers, like fleas in warm weather, especially when Rhun and Mairwen step off the path and into their goat yard. Rhun is still thinking obsessively about Arthur.

  Saint Branwen and Llew bound up, barking, and Mairwen laughs a little. Rhun feels their barking in his chest and goes onto one knee to embrace the dogs. They hit him hard, strong in their welcome, but Rhun holds himself upright, scratching their shaggy necks as their long legs scramble at his thighs. He feels an echo of pain slashing down his thigh, the memory of red-eyed monster dogs, and killing them with bare hands and arrows. Rhun shudders, missing Arthur, who stabbed the dog tearing at Rhun’s spine. Arthur, who kissed him, not only inside the forest, but out here in the valley, where it means something different. Who is on fire to save everybody, but especially Rhun. It’s a good thing, and Rhun won??
?t let go.

  His father, Rhun the Elder, whistles for order, and the hounds obey immediately.

  He and Mairwen are surrounded by Sayers, mostly men and boys, for that’s some odd trick of the bloodline. “Hello, son,” the Elder says, smiling the same easy smile Rhun himself used to so frequently sport. “Mairwen Grace,” continues Rhun’s father, tentative but warm. For years he kept distant from her, not because she’s a witch, but worried it would be too hard to lose her when they lost Rhun at his Slaughter Moon. Now that it’s over, he’s unsure how to be.

  Mairwen puts a hand to her breast, over the hidden thorns. “Mister Sayer,” she says.

  “Where’s Baeddan?” Rhun asks.

  “Slept up in the loft with us!” Elis Sayer chirps, tugging Rhun’s sleeve.

  Rhun the Elder nods his chin up at their outbuilding. “Was still sleeping at dawn. He looked more like himself, you know. Like being at home is healing him.”

  “I want to see him,” Mairwen says.

  “Maybe we should let him sleep,” Rhun murmurs, glancing toward Mairwen’s collar.

  “Come eat. Non’s got food out still, since this whole lot can’t settle,” Rhun the Elder says.

  “All right,” Mair agrees. She firms up her expression and heads for the house.

  “Sure, Dad. I’m hungry. I could eat a bear,” Rhun says, directing the last toward his little brother. Elis wrinkles his face at such a ridiculous idea.

  Rhun the Elder smiles tightly and leads the way.

  A wake of Sayer cousins streams after them, pressing behind Rhun and Mairwen, none of whom quite cross the threshold, afraid of Nona Sayer’s ire. She’s clanging around at the hearth while Delia Sayer, Rhun’s aunt, prepares a chicken carcass for the pot. Brac’s wife, Sal, is stirring a large bowl of cream, seated on one of the odd Sayer stools.

  “Ah, you’re here!” Sal says, pushing bright curls off her face with the back of her hand. “We were just talking about who we think killed the surviving saints.”

  Nona hisses with frustration, slamming a lid onto the savory-smelling pot simmering over her fire.

  Mairwen says, “Grace witches.”

  “You must be joking,” Nona says, fists on her hips, though the rest of those present are slower to react, shocked.

  “Do you have a mirror Mair can use?” Rhun asks, diverting conflict. Since Arthur kissed him, he’s been walking a razor’s edge of hope.

  “I do,” his mother says. “Think of another culprit, Mairwen Grace. Your mother is a witch, not a devil.”

  Mair shifts into a stance Rhun knows well: stubborn and challenging. She says, “My mother knew our blessing ointment for the saint would tie Rhun to the Bone Tree, dooming him. It creates a binding charm that draws the saint back to the tree even if he survives his night, even if he leaves the valley. That’s as good as killing them, to do it knowingly. Rhun’s blood would have been on my hands, because I made the charm. That is the Grace legacy.”

  Nona stares at Mairwen with hard eyes. “My boy isn’t dead. That’s your legacy.”

  Mairwen opens her mouth but says nothing. She stares at Nona.

  “The mirror’s upstairs in my trunk, girl. And pick out a nicer shawl if you would like.”

  With a twirl, Mair heads up.

  Rhun’s mother sends everyone else away too, so it’s only herself and her son. Then Nona turns to the fire like she’s nothing to say after all, and Rhun stares at her shoulders. At the strength of them, their broadness, the length of her neck and the curls of black hair sticking to it. “Are you still bound to the tree, son? Is what she said true?”

  “Yes,” he answers. “Though it’s different, because of Mairwen, and everything.”

  Suddenly, Nona spins faster than Rhun has ever seen her move, and her clenched jaw is so like his own, the carmine in her eyes sparking like his. “I am so very proud of you for ending it, Rhun Sayer. You ran and you fought and you changed everything. No matter what happens now, whatever the bargain becomes. I couldn’t bear to change my life outside the valley, for the risk it would be, so I only ran away. But you do what you know is right, for everyone, every moment. I am so proud of you.”

  Rhun’s knees loosen and he sits. He draws a ragged breath. “It was Mairwen and Arthur who made me, who changed it. Not me.”

  “I don’t believe you. They went into that forest for you: They might have begun the change, but they never would have without you.”

  “I lived my life expecting to be a saint. It isn’t such a great sacrifice, if you never expected to have a future.” Rhun shrugs one shoulder. “That’s why I’m not better. The best. I didn’t really give anything up at all.”

  “Rhun, you gave yourself up every day, again and again. I watched it constantly. Always choosing other than yourself. My selfless boy. I wish you’d been more selfish. I hope you’re learning it now.”

  “Maybe. I—I love Arthur.”

  And? her eyebrows ask.

  “Mom, I mean . . . I love him like you love Dad, like I love Mairwen, like . . . I kissed him. He kissed me.”

  Nona presses her mouth into a line and stares at him.

  Rhun’s stomach finally catches up with his confession, twisting hard.

  “Well.” Sighing, she slumps down onto the bench beside her son. “Well.”

  “It’s just love, Mom,” Rhun whispers. His hands clench because he wants to touch her hand, pat her shoulder, or give her a hug.

  “Nothing is just love,” Nona says almost as softly.

  • • •

  THE SECOND STORY OF THE Sayer house is one long room divided by wood panels into two. The front is Nona and Rhun the Elder’s bedroom. Gray sunlight stretches through the large windows, casting the room in cool pastels. Mairwen crouches at the top of the ladder, listening to the painful conversation between Rhun and his mother. Her old, easy love for Rhun grows up again as she listens to Nona reveal how proud of him she is, and it flares hot as the sun when Rhun tells his mother about Arthur. She’s ready to fall back down the ladder and get in Nona’s face if the woman makes even the slightest move to chastise him.

  But Nona doesn’t, and Rhun falls quiet, and Mairwen touches the thorns on her chest, pressing hard enough to make them ache. She loves him so very much, and Arthur, too, and she isn’t going to let anything happen to either of them, or Haf or her family or the Priddys or Pughs, or to a woman like Nona Sayer, who never will talk about her past but was brave enough to leave it and find a future.

  That’s what Mairwen has to do: carve a future for everybody in Three Graces.

  Standing, Mair goes to the small trunk beside the bed, opening it. The mirror rests on a narrow shelf carved into the left side of the trunk. Its handle is made of bone, yellowed with age, and the mirror itself is backed with silver and mother-of-pearl.

  Taking a fortifying breath, Mairwen flips the mirror around.

  The first thing she notices are the stark lines of her cheeks that never were so blatant before. Her eyes are only slightly sunken with weariness, and the eyes themselves large as ever. Bowed lips plenty pink, and when she bares her teeth, she likes the shine of them. Her chin seems daintier now, because of the raw mess of her hair. It falls in jagged curls and weird layers, a true bramble.

  And that blackness in her eyes. It’s a spiral pattern in one and random starbursts of black in the other. Mairwen shudders, loving it, even as it scares her.

  She holds the mirror closer, at an odd angle, to inspect her hairline, to dig in with fingers to find any hint of more antlers or thorns ready to sprout from her skull. Nothing. Lowering the mirror, she unties her shirt and reveals the collarbone. The base of the small thorns are crusted with blood, for she hasn’t washed them well, and her skin tinges bluish.

  She traces the path they create across her chest. The skin is so sensitive, like her lips. She wants to know what it feels like to have someone else touch her there, with gentle hands or mouth.

  For a moment, Mairwen is lost in a forest growing up t
hrough the walls of the Sayer house, vines of thick green, bending branches full of emerald and dark purple leaves. The forest whispers in her ears, tickling her skin from the inside out. Her chest expands, her hips roll, and her head falls back as the forest promises to bring her to its heart, again and again.

  The veil slips against her braids, against her shoulders and arms as he gently pulls it away. Through the white lace she sees the black flicker of his eyes, the shimmer of his form, always changing—antlers, fangs, fur, soft skin, four delicate legs, bare feet, hands that grip her waist, tendrils of thin green vines circling his arm, his neck, long hair dripping tiny flowers, feathers spilling along his spine, and wings, even, stretching like the night sky—and she longs to be brought inside all of that, a piece of him, when the veil is gone.

  She gasps as it falls finally away, and smiles at the creature. Then a whisper in the wind makes her blood cold. He is gone. She’s alone, except no—


  What is this. When is this?

  Mairwen faces the girl in the long white veil, and the girl lifts her hand, points at Mair, and says—

  A footstep on the stairs startles Mairwen awake, and she is only a young woman holding a mirror, kneeling in someone else’s bedroom, staring at herself. Her eyes are blacker now, and her gums ache as if her teeth are loose. She pulls back her lips to see her eyeteeth grown just slightly longer and sharper.

  “Haf is here,” Rhun says. “She needs to show you something.”

  • • •

  ADERYN GRACE STANDS IN THE center of her cottage, hands raised to bring down a dried bundle of yarrow. A persistent memory has caught her midaction, an image from her dream—a dream she’s experienced the past three nights.

  In the dream, she’s pressed flush to the wall, laughing, as a man kisses along the curve of her neck. He smells like rain and summer flowers, and Aderyn opens herself up to him as if nothing in the world belongs inside her as well as he does. When he pulls back, taking both her hands, she sees his face and it is beautiful.