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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 23


  But when she wakes, his features fade to a blur of affection and distant memory. The Grace witch does not enjoy uncertainty, nor muddled memories. She’s never been inside the forest—why should her mind be affected as her daughter’s is?

  “Aderyn?”

  Hetty ducks around the kitchen table and pokes the witch in the shoulder. It startles Aderyn from her contemplation. “I’m all right. Only . . .”

  “The dream. It’s your daughter, stirring up memories of Carey, and the early sacrifice, and all the questions. You know.”

  Aderyn turns to Hetty and takes the other woman’s freckled face in both hands. “I hope it does not hurt you.”

  “How could it? I’ll never resent any part of your life, especially a part that gave you Mairwen.”

  The Grace witch smiles sadly, but with all her heart, and gently tugs Hetty nearer, turning her own head to allow Hetty’s lips access to her neck. She will replace the memory with hotter love.

  “Ladies.”

  The voice thunders through Aderyn’s ribs and she stumbles away from Hetty. Her eyes squeeze tightly closed as memories rattle her bones, jerking her heart into stillness. Memories of sex and purple flowers and her thrill at getting away with something terrible.

  “Addie, I need something of yours,” the voice says, rich and crawling up her spine like a lover’s scratch.

  Hetty screams.

  Framed in the cottage doorway is Mairwen’s father.

  • • •

  ARTHUR COUCH STANDS AT THE edge of the Devil’s Forest.

  Daylight streams through the canopy, despite the thinly overcast sky, reflecting motes of dust and forest rot hanging in the air. A few remaining brown and gold leaves shiver in the tiny breeze, like the trees are waving to him.

  “Arthur Couch!” sings a bird woman, swooping toward him. “Did you miss us?”

  “Hello, little thing; no, I did not.”

  She snaps at him and darts away—past him, out into the gray sunlight.

  Arthur spins to watch her. In her wake, two more bird women fly out. They giggle and spin, one lifting high to soar like a hawk. Right out in the open, far beyond where he stands at the forest boundary.

  Fear makes his heartbeat flicker.

  If they’re able to fly free, what else? Next could be a thing like that deer that stumbled out when the bargain was weak before. There are so many worse things hiding deep in the forest, and worser still that he might not even remember.

  This must be done, and now, before their binding breaks. Before Rhun or Mairwen answers the Bone Tree’s call.

  Arthur hefts the ax in his left hand, and fingers the fire steel in the pocket of his coat.

  When he was a child, he swore he’d run in and offer his heart to the devil, to prove he was the best. It turns out the devil never wanted him, but not because there’s anything wrong with Arthur. All the wrongness in their valley was born in the original bargain itself. Those rules for the sacrifice somebody decided mattered—only a boy and only the best—passed down as traditions, creating a tight web of what it means to be the best boy, and barriers dividing people. That way of life, that system, nearly strangled Arthur and would have murdered Rhun Sayer, the only person in Three Graces who definitely didn’t deserve it. Born from the lie that you can be both a saint and a survivor.

  If the only way to keep it from happening again, to unravel the story back to the beginning, is to burn it all down, then that’s what Arthur will do.

  He walks back into the Devil’s Forest.

  • • •

  BAEDDAN CROUCHES BETWEEN TWO TALL, happy trees just beyond the Sayer homestead, and listens to the call of songbirds. There are no words in their singing, no longing, no danger. Just two birds. He glances up at the canopy, trying to spy them. Leaves fall gently, drifting in the windless forest air, and beyond them the branches splay against a gray sky, with only hints of the sun. It’s quiet, peaceful. Baeddan can hear his own calm breathing, and none of his heartbeat.

  He covers his ears to make certain, eyes locked above, slowly crossing the sky for the birds.

  There! A flit of a wing, too purposeful to be a fluttering leaf. A flash of rusty brown.

  Humming, Baeddan walks on, following the bird. He feels free. Someone or something else has drawn away his burden.

  Perhaps he is finally dead, he thinks, except the birdsong is too lovely, too much like home.

  He woke this morning in a pile of boys and dogs, surrounded by hay and discarded furniture, wrapped in musty wool and his face pressed to a fur blanket. Little boys and cousins younger than him but seeming older all snored together, mouths open, some sprawled, others curled, and it reminded Baeddan of the roots of the Bone Tree, and all their teeth were flowers and their skulls would soon show through withered, dead skin, their hair twisted into vines.

  He pushed free and stumbled down the ladder from the barn loft, out the back, where he knew without thinking a rear door opened to a path leading higher up the mountain before it curved around southwest to join with the Upjohn homestead.

  It seemed a good path.

  His humming mars the birdsong, but a crow joins in, and Baeddan laughs as loud as it calls. He smells smoke and he’s hungry for it, for something—anything. Reaching for a nearby tree, he slips his fingers under a fan of pale-orange lichen. He stops. No. He does not eat such things, not out here. Not . . .

  Baeddan squeezes his eyes shut. His hunger fades, replaced by discomfort where his bare feet are growing cold. “Baeddan,” he says aloud. Will the name ever stick?

  Where is the Grace witch? he wonders, glancing around for a flash of white—no. She has brambled brown hair and dark eyes and—

  The heart of the forest suddenly beats in his chest.

  Thunderous and abrupt.

  Saint.

  Saint.

  He steps in time with it, turning down the mountain. The voice of the Devil’s Forest is hissing and chaotic, pulling at him and others. . . . Baeddan feels it expand suddenly, its need pushing outward and larger than before. Toward him.

  He can’t understand, but the shadow inside him grows.

  What is his name?

  Sighing through his teeth, he thinks he should go back to—to the Sayers. Baeddan Sayer. Yes, he should find . . .

  Birds dart overhead; they giggle and laugh. Not birds, or not only birds, but—

  No, he should go this way.

  He does, following his instinct down a slope of conifers. His feet slide through the deadfall and he slows, quieting his progress. This requires silence, the stalking, the slipping behind, coming around, listening, listening for—

  Saint, the forest says, in a heavy, demanding dark voice this young devil has never heard before.

  Bring me the saint.

  • • •

  HAF WAITS IN THE SAYER kitchen, hands wrung together. For a second, Mair sees the veiled girl standing in Haf’s place, but she blinks and her friend is there again. Mairwen lists toward Rhun, who holds her elbow.

  She feels so strange, and the memory of the veiled girl hangs in her thoughts. It was not her memory, nor Rhun’s, nor Arthur’s, but a forest memory. Was it the first Grace and the old god?

  “What happened to the old god of the forest?” she asks.

  “Mairwen?”

  Startling out of her thoughts, Mair focuses on Haf as Rhun sits her down at the table and puts a plate of hot bread in front of her. “Yes,” she says, lifting the bread.

  Rhun sits beside her, and Haf on her other side. They lean together around Mairwen, conspiratorial. Haf murmurs, “Look,” and puts out her light-gold hand, palm-up. A smear of blood mars the delicate skin between her thumb and forefinger, around a puncture wound. “I caught it on a splinter last night, stumbling in the dark, and washed it, bound it, went to sleep. It was like this when I woke.”

  “The bargain should heal this sort of thing overnight,” Rhun says.

  Mairwen stares. At the fire, Nona stirs up the coals ben
eath her cauldron and nestles potatoes along the edges. Sal has returned to stirring her bowl of cream, and Delia is stuffing the chicken she cleaned at the far end of the table. All quiet, all listening.

  “I said it was temporary binding,” Mairwen says in her normal voice, if a bit tighter for worry.

  Sal’s eyes flash to Mairwen, then Delia, then Mairwen again. “But so soon?”

  “Do you feel all right?” Rhun asks Mair, nudging her plate closer to her hand. “Eat.”

  Nona stands. “It’ll last as long as it lasts. Then we’re on our own.”

  “Unless we make a new bargain,” Rhun says. He’s looking at Mairwen, not his mother.

  “If my binding won’t hold it, if my heart won’t, like this, then death is the only way,” Mair says. “We can’t just shove someone into the forest to die.”

  Rhun puts his hand over hers. “It isn’t that simple. If I’d known the truth, I might have volunteered anyway. If I’d been raised that way, knowing what it would mean for everybody else. Without the lie.”

  “Rhun,” whispers Haf.

  He glances at her. “Bree wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the bargain. And when I was small there was a pox that rolled through overnight, and vanished. How many might it have killed otherwise? And Rhos’s baby is alive right now, and I touched her little nose. It’s the same bargain it always was: one life for all this. Isn’t that worth it?”

  “Some folk are saying so,” Haf says. “That the saint is the saint, and you have to . . . that we should . . . put you back in.”

  “That is what makes it wrong,” Nona says, slamming her hand flat to her hearth. “Any folk who’d try that don’t deserve my son’s life.”

  Mairwen nods, and Haf, too. Sal leans on the end of the table. “That’s right, Rhun.”

  Aunt Delia has tears in her eyes, but nods.

  “You should stay here a while,” Haf says to Rhun. “Keep out of sight. And where’s Arthur? He’s not the saint, not really, but the way his father talks and some others . . . they might . . .”

  “I can’t hide,” Rhun says. “I’ll go find Arthur. The bargain will last a little while longer, and then we’ll—”

  Mair stands. “I’m going to the manor, to look through Sy Vaughn’s books. There might be answers there. I want to know what his ancestors think happened to the old god.”

  “I’m going with you,” Haf says, and Mair nods.

  “Rhun, find Arthur, and Baeddan if you can. Hunt, encourage everyone you meet to live as if it’s any day, and all is well. Three Graces is the life part of the bargain, so people need to live.”

  Rhun puts his hands on Mair’s waist and kisses her.

  The veil slips against her braids, against her shoulders and arms as he

  Mair presses her mouth harder to Rhun’s, feels the burn of the thorns at her collarbone and the impression of her own sharpening teeth against her upper lip. “Be careful,” she whispers.

  Just as she lets go, she gasps: Her blood pulls taught suddenly, thick and cold. She shivers and lets Rhun wrap his arms around her. She can feel the forest reaching toward her, all the way here on the mountain. It is desperate, and strong! The shadows pierce past the line of trees, up the pasture toward her mother’s house. Eyes shut, face pressed to Rhun’s shoulder, she sees a flock of birds dart over the valley, and a wind drags out of the Devil’s Forest, rolling toward her.

  • • •

  THE DEVIL STUMBLES ACROSS THE yard and against the door, hard enough it shakes and his shoulder grows a new bruise. His sight is fading, blurred. He hurts everywhere, and the command is all, all, all he hears: hungry, so hungry bring the saint find the saint the saint saint

  Every step withers the grass at his feet. Every tree he touches shivers and turns black in a mark the shape of his hand.

  The devil is dying, and taking it all with him.

  Throwing himself against the door again, the devil roars. He pounds and claws at it, and the door gives way.

  Inside is warm, a fire in the hearth. He growls at a woman and young girl, blurs of skirts and wide eyes, and they grab on to each other, calling “John! John!”

  The forest calls, too, John! John!

  “John!” the devil bellows, and for a moment his sight clears, his mind clears. Baeddan knows why he’s here.

  Running, he pushes aside the women and tears into the second large room of this homestead: A man waits for him, half dressed, light hair loose, one-handed. The other arm ends at a pinkish, shining scar of a wrist.

  John Upjohn can hardly breathe.

  The devil’s skin is yellowish and cream; the antlers have fallen from hair and head, and even his thorns are dying, two missing, with wounds left behind, and the hint of black bone beneath. He trembles. He’s weak. His eyes are sunken into his face and his lips are dry and cracked as he pulls them open over his sharp teeth.

  John steps closer, eyes locked to the devil’s chest, where the remaining twenty-odd bones of his hand are sewn with vine and sinew into the devil’s flesh. Finger bones and hand bones, strange knuckles and pebble-like wrist bones.

  The devil jumps forward to claim his prize.

  • • •

  THE FOREST IS QUIET, BUT not silent.

  Light diffuses through the barren canopy, bright enough, but unnerving, as Arthur picks his way as directly north as he can, toward the Bone Tree. He imagines taking axes and shovels and with a line of men cutting a path through it all. Marking it with red paint as a warning not to stray.

  Unlike two nights ago, Arthur cuts a strong, confident figure as he strides between the trees. No ducking aside, no peering uncertainly through the shadows. When he comes across a stream, he recognizes it from a flickering memory and leaps over it, glad to know he’s still going the right way. When a dozen bird women shriek and dive at him, he only shoves them away, batting gently with his hands. “I am Arthur Couch, and you know me,” he says through his teeth. “Let me be. You may not have my blood.” When his path is blocked by three undead bone creatures, one with a raven skull, another a goat, and the final a fox, he smiles his most ferocious smile and brandishes his knife.

  They laugh and skip around to join the bird women following him.

  It isn’t more than a quarter hour before Arthur has an entourage of ghouls and bone boys, all clicking their teeth and giggling. A fanged and claw-footed deer picks behind, and a handful of black wolves with red eyes and razor teeth. Shadows flitter, more shape than form, and nearly invisible in this scattered light.

  His stomach growls. Arthur wishes he’d eaten something. Though he passes bright apples and vibrant black berries, he won’t risk it.

  The song of the wind takes up a more skeletal chime, and Arthur knows he’s near the Bone Tree. It creaks and groans even without wind, stretching itself wider and digging deep into the earth below the forest.

  He steps into the grove, leaving his creepy entourage huddled at the edges.

  All is gray, as if it is the surface of the moon, but for the cage of black trees encircling them. The Bone Tree stands tall, looming over everything with cragged white branches and dark gray scars. Strewn across the bare earth are a hundred dead scarlet leaves. And a few sprinkles of blood, darkened to brown or a deep purple.

  Arthur bends over, spits blood onto the ground, then does his best to growl. It’s a losing fight. He’s weak, but he will not let—

  Blinking away the memory—for what good will it do him now? He has a mission—Arthur walks carefully toward the Bone Tree.

  The altar waits, cold and pale and empty, stripped of its black vines and gruesome remains. Roots thick and grossly pale, like massive worms rising from the earth, embrace the altar and prop up the Bone Tree itself.

  And of course, there are the bones. Arthur clenches his fists, seething at the plain evidence of centuries of deadly sacrifice. Twenty-five skulls, staring and smiling, tied in a spiral pattern to the rough white face of the tree. A flare of scapula and ribs, like wings stretching up and
back, and rows of long bones, femurs and arm bones lined into a terrible coat of mail.

  Glancing up, Arthur winces at the glare of light; everything is too bright, too silvery-white. At least the conflagration he has planned will warm it all.

  Arthur heads for the altar. He grabs old vines and scraps of cloth that remain from the jerkins and trousers and shirts of saints before Baeddan. It is gruesome to think on, but he takes satisfaction that he’ll be giving them a massive funeral pyre.

  He’s got a good pile of leaves, twigs, dried-out strips of bark stacked against, around, and atop the altar, ready to light, when a sound catches his attention.

  Turning, he looks at the edges of the Bone Tree’s grove, hunting for whatever made it.

  Nothing.

  Silence surrounds him; even the ghouls and monsters ducked between shadows have gone silent. That stillness puts Arthur’s teeth on edge. He pulls out his knife. It cannot be Baeddan. That devil was never silent. But who else? What else?

  He slows his breathing with great effort and pulls out his fire steel.

  A branch cracks.

  Arthur nearly drops the loop of metal.

  Something groans; it’s the Bone Tree.

  Mouth hanging in shock, he glances up at the skeletons and staring skulls, at the higher white branches, laced with deep fissures of age. Is that a splash of color? Violet.

  A flower. It floats down and lands at the tip of his pyre. The petals look velvety, teardrop shaped, and one by one they wither into blackness.

  More fall. Three there, and then a handful, trembling as they flutter down and down around him.

  The Bone Tree shudders, and pale-green tendrils push out from the cracks in its bark.

  “What is going on?” Arthur asks aloud.

  “I’ve come home,” says a creature behind him, voice low and full of satisfaction.

  • • •

  THE LAST TIME MAIRWEN CLIMBED this difficult mountain path, she was eager and desperate, running on fumes of hope because one of the horses in the pasture was sick and Rhos Priddy went into early labor. She scales it again now, with Haf just behind her, conquering the overgrown trail, grasping boulders and tangled roots to drag up and up. But she is stronger than before, filled with a power that tells her where to grasp, how to step. She can reach back and pull Haf up, assisting where it’s needed.