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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 24


  “Mairwen, you’re not afraid.”

  Surprised, she stops. Haf pants lightly. Exertion puts a pretty flush in her lips and brightens her eyes. Long wisps of sleek black hair stick to her tan neck.

  Mairwen holds out her arm, showing Haf the gauntlet of forest growing from wrist toward her elbow and the way her ruddy pink skin is tinging violet. “It’s power. A manifestation of what I’m becoming.”

  “Which is?”

  “Part of the forest, I think. Like Baeddan was, before we pulled him out.”

  “Is it because you’re a witch?”

  “And daughter of a saint. And I anointed myself,” Mair confesses with a brief downward flick of her eyes.

  Laughing breathlessly, Haf takes Mair’s hand. “I always wanted to be a witch, too. Because you are, and you’re so . . .”

  “Weird?”

  “But you don’t care.”

  “I think you’d be a marvelous witch. If you weren’t so happy with Ifan, and it wouldn’t make Arthur cry, I’d convince you to be my witch partner, like Hetty and my mother.”

  “Do they . . . ?”

  “They do.”

  Haf squirms. “Well.” She grips Mairwen’s hand tightly.

  “Here,” Mair says, grinning with her sharp teeth, “is the first lesson: listen.”

  Silence stretches. Mairwen nods and continues climbing, Haf’s hand still in hers. Mair listens to the slip of pebbles tumbling under their feet, the wind through the trees and tall grass ahead, where the mountain juts up past the tree line. She listens to Haf’s breath pick up with effort and expectation, to her own slight grunt of effort, and the throb of blood in her ears. She listens to the voice of the forest, calling, calling, and it’s not in her ears. It’s in her heart. Since it pushed out, it’s gone quieter again, as if it caught something and reeled it back in.

  “Listen to what?” Haf finally says, exasperated.

  “Just listen!” Mair tugs them a little faster. “To everything. Listen. Mom used to set me somewhere and leave me for an hour, and when she returned asked me to tell her everything I heard, and what I thought of it.” The reminder is bitter in the aftermath of Aderyn’s confession; Mair thinks if she’d learned the lesson better, she’d have known the truth long ago.

  “What is the second lesson?” Haf asks.

  “My mother would say learning to steep herbs and make an ointment, or patience. But I think it’s seeing between day and night. Learning to find a place between everything. That’s the charm. Life, dead, and grace in between. The witch in between.”

  “Being comfortable there,” Haf says thoughtfully. She slips her arms around Mairwen’s waist.

  Mair nods, hugging back. “I think being a witch means making choices, too. If you can see between day and night, if you see shades between good and evil, then you can act on what others can’t, or refuse to, see. Change things.”

  “I’ve always admired that you didn’t fit anywhere, so you made your own place.”

  “You do too, Haf. Nobody says who you are but you. It doesn’t matter who anybody wants us to be. We choose. We decide.”

  Haf stops moving. She watches Mairwen carefully for a moment, then nods. “Maybe. I think I’m lucky because I want to be what others also want me to be. It’s harder for you.”

  “I make it hard.”

  “Is Arthur a witch?”

  Mair huffs.

  “He’s lived between,” Haf suggests. “I thought he was lucky at first, to get to be both, but he hated it.”

  “He fights so hard against being undefinable! I love it. He’d rather nobody saw his betweenness. How can he see between light and dark if he’s determined to only ever stand in the dark?”

  “Maybe he couldn’t tell who he wanted to be, when people forced it on him so early.”

  “No more than the rest of us are dressed as we’re born and trained as we’re supposed to behave,” Mairwen says.

  Haf sighs.

  “Arthur’s problem,” Mairwen says, “is he puts more value on being a boy than on being a girl. As if the fact that the best boy is sacrificed means boys are better than girls. That’s not why.”

  “Why?”

  “It’s just how the bargain was formed. I think any heart would bind it, but that wasn’t a good enough story. To make people believe something deeply enough to hurt other people, the bargain had to be specific, had to create rules the town could ascribe meaning to. Could imbue with value. Trust me; people don’t like magic that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t easy to believe. It was easy to believe a strong, skilled, noble boy could be worthy of sacrifice, especially if he had a chance to survive.”

  “You want to change the story.”

  “We have to.”

  “That will hurt too,” Haf murmurs, but not to argue against it.

  For a moment, Mairwen listens again to the wind, the distant voice of the forest, and her gently beating heart. She knows Haf is right, or mostly right. It wasn’t the girl’s name or dresses that hurt Arthur. No, he was happy when they were all children. She remembers how hard Lyn Couch laughed. What hurt him was the rule change. Being forced out of girlhood into boyhood, as if it were only an either/or, as if to make any other choice was unnatural. He was so little when his world was dragged out from under him, it was no wonder he clung to the rules forever after. His world changed and he wouldn’t change with it, until he broke another rule, until he ran into the forest and witnessed for himself the lies. Arthur had to change to survive. Just like Three Graces. The rules of the bargain have changed, and they all have to find a way together to change again. For the better. Mair smiles. “We should all learn to be witches in Three Graces.”

  “I’ll start,” Haf says.

  Mairwen kisses her cheek, breathing in the wonderful smell of the sweet oil Haf rubs in the ends of her hair to keep it from drying out in the winter. “Let’s go.”

  They finally reach the flat yard of stone and gravel, where no trees grow. There are the remains of the bonfire from the night of the Slaughter Moon, when she was the Grace witch and she anointed the saint and kissed him, not knowing what it was she sentenced him to.

  Heading quietly past it, Mairwen pushes through the iron gate. At the heavy front door, she lifts a hand to knock, but discovers the door open a handspan.

  “Oh,” Haf says, worried.

  Mair uses her shoulder to shove the door open. “Hello? Lord Vaughn?” Her voice echoes slightly down the dim corridor. She follows it. “Vaughn?”

  There’s no reply, and hardly a thing to hear. No crackling fire. No noise besides the shuffle of Haf’s feet at the threshold. Mairwen’s bare toes make no sound.

  The girls wend their way through the manor, past pristine limewash and dark wooden panels, through the library and kitchen, sitting room and a narrow music room full of dusty instruments. They search every room they can find, even shoving aside the tapestries for signs of hidden rooms. Vaughn is nowhere to be found.

  • • •

  AS HE MAKES HIS WAY down into Three Graces, Rhun’s thoughts flit between a pleased anticipation for seeing Arthur again and worry that he won’t live up to his mother’s expectations. You do what you know is right. She’s proud of him, and he wants to keep it so, but he’s not sure what is right anymore. Haf Lewis says folks are upset—and rightly so—that instead of doing his duty he let Mairwen and Arthur change the bargain, rebinding it in a way that can’t last. They’re right, too. He did choose to live, to give Mairwen’s binding a chance.

  There’s a moment he remembers now from the forest, when Arthur tried to give himself to the devil and save Rhun, and all Rhun could feel was a desperate need to survive. For both of them to walk out of the forest. Together. He forgot it, just as he forgot what is worth saving.

  Rhun wants to live, but he doesn’t want Three Graces to suffer for it.

  Moving as quietly as he does, Rhun startles Judith and Ben Heir, who are taking a turn with the sheep, nudging the herd toward longer gra
ss. They’re holding hands, and Judith stretches up to whisper something, tickling behind Ben’s ear until he smiles. Last night at the Sayer table, Rhun heard from his cousin Delia, who heard from her sister-in-law, that Judith’s pregnant. The next generation of children to be sacrificed for the forest.

  He stops. “Congratulations, you two.” It’s difficult to tell if he means it.

  Judith leans back against her husband, whose hands grip her shoulders. “Thank you, Rhun,” she says with a smile.

  “I want my child to be safe,” Ben says, less happy, but with a look that Rhun knows exactly how to interpret.

  “I want that too, Ben. Have you seen Arthur?”

  “No,” Judith answers. She hesitates before saying more.

  Ben says, “How can we just let this all fall apart?”

  “We’re trying not to. Arthur, Mairwen, and me, and Haf Lewis, and anybody else who wants to can try with us. Mair and Haf are up at Vaughn’s manor now, looking for answers. I need Arthur. For . . .” He shrugs.

  “Strange birds flew out of the forest this morning,” Ben says. “And it’s been overcast for hours.”

  “We need rain,” Judith reminds her husband.

  “We usually get a perfect amount of it. Now, I don’t know. What if it floods?”

  “What do you think we should do?” Rhun asks him.

  The slighter man runs a hand over his short brown hair. He winces. He shakes his head. “I’m not sure.”

  “It’s hard. I know what some are saying.” Rhun starts to walk past, thinking of his mother’s words. Any folk who’d try that don’t deserve my son’s life.

  “I just want my son to live, or my daughter,” Ben presses.

  Rhun turns back. “You want me, or some other boy, to die so yours will live, Ben. I understand that. Until he’s fifteen or so, and then maybe it’s his turn. Only, you’ll know there’s no chance that he’ll run back out of the forest. If your son is the saint.” Rhun steps closer, holding Ben’s gaze. “I’m sorry.”

  “Without it, he might die before he’s even born,” Judith whispers, holding her small belly.

  “I know.”

  “What are we going to do about it, then?” Ben holds his wife tight.

  The bracelet on Rhun’s wrist tightens suddenly. He freezes and pushes back his sleeve. The braided hair and vines constrict and crumble, turning to ash.

  It’s gone. Rhun splays out his hand, then makes a fist, concentrating on the strength in his arm. There’s no magic.

  Eyes widening, he looks north to the forest. It hasn’t even occurred to him the voice has been silent for a long while, asleep or dull or just uninterested in seducing him back to the Bone Tree.

  But that’s not the problem. Their binding isn’t slowly weakening, falling apart.

  Something just broke it.

  • • •

  IN VAUGHN’S BEDCHAMBER, MAIRWEN AND Haf discover a bed the size of Mair’s entire loft. Its posts are built of the solid trunks of trees, dark wood and polished to a shine. The mattress is thick and moves with feathers, not straw, and smells of pine and an earthy fragrance Mair can’t quite put a name to besides “autumn.” Haf runs her fingers along the edge of a narrow silk pillow and reaches up to touch the fringe decorating the dark-blue curtain.

  Though she intended to explore the small pile of letters atop the table in the corner, and the lacquered box beside them, Mairwen stops as she crosses the floor at the foot of the bed. A long gray stone is embedded among the smaller stone tiles, and when she crouches, it’s slightly warm to the touch.

  Just like the hearthstone in her house, and just like the Bone Tree’s altar.

  “Mairwen,” Haf whispers, though there’s nobody around to hide from.

  A chill creeping up her spine, Mairwen glances at her friend. She’s pointing to the cold hearth, and a small oval painting set against it. It’s a painted portrait of a little girl.

  Mairwen rushes to it, lifting it carefully. The paint is old, cracking along the border where it meets the thin gold frame. But the gaze of the girl is as intense as looking in a mirror. Round brown eyes, a thin pink smile, blotchy pink skin, and dark hair with hints of sunlight red.

  It’s her. When she was five or six years old.

  Before Mairwen can say anything, her wrist pinches.

  Then, with a cry, Mair falls to her knees as fire and night-black coldness both flare in her body: the heat in her blood, the cold in her bones.

  She drops the portrait, and Haf crashes down beside her, grabbing her shoulders, calling her name.

  Mairwen’s tongue is so dry, her throat closed; she coughs, wretchedly, feeling something choking her, tearing up from her stomach. She shudders and tastes it, bitter and sweet both, blood and sugar. She spits out a flower. A tiny purple viola.

  From Baeddan’s bleeding wounds purple flowers grow, wither, and die, falling in black ashes to surround his bare feet. “I let the last one go, and look what’s become of me.”

  “Oh, Mairwen, is it getting worse?” Haf asks.

  “No,” Mairwen says from a raw throat, then spits out another tiny purple flower. Her hands are splayed before her on the stone floor: one plain and ruddy, knuckles whitening with tension, the other bluish and splotched, but the gauntlet is flaking off, chipping away in tiny brown scraps. The braided hair shrivels, pinching at her.

  Suddenly Mair’s chest is on fire. She struggles to kneel back and tears down the shirt, ripping the linen on the edge of a thorn. The thorn falls off with a slick sound, and Mair bites her lip.

  The forest is withdrawing from her! Fast and desperate, ignoring her body’s need for slower change.

  “It hurts,” she whimpers. “Help me to my feet.”

  “Get in the bed, Mair. I’ll—”

  “No! I have to go to the Bone Tree. I have to—something is very wrong!”

  Mairwen uses Haf to climb to her feet, stepping on the portrait. Her heel snaps it in two and she stumbles, but Haf is there to catch her, and together they run out of the manor.

  • • •

  ARTHUR TURNS SO FAST HE knocks back against the altar.

  Emerging from the forest is a man, simply dressed in a fine tunic and trousers, his shirt collar untied around his throat and the cuffs loose at his wrists. He wears no boots or stockings, and his bare feet are strangely pale, mottled like moonlight, as is his face. His smile is wide and curved like a scythe, his hair wild and all the colors of tree bark and earth: browns and grays and blacks and reds, twisted into a riot of curls. His eyes seem to widen and narrow separately from each other, one dark and one light, and it is only that which allows Arthur to put a name to the man.

  “Lord Vaughn?” he says, squinting.

  The man raises his arms, and several bird women land upon his open palms. “Lord, at least,” he says warmly.

  Flowers continue to rain gently down upon them, and Vaughn tilts his chin to look up at the Bone Tree.

  “Ah, my heart,” he says.

  Arthur’s mind is spinning. He sits on the edge of the altar.

  Vaughn enters the grove, moving directly toward Arthur but staring at the Bone Tree. Two bird women clutch his arm, and another settles in his hair. In his wake, a handful of bone creatures crawl after, the raven and two foxes, wide eyes stuck on Vaughn in a way Arthur can only read as awe. All around the grove the trees shift and shiver, with no breeze to cause it, and the shadows reach inward. Arthur hears clicking teeth and the rustle of feathers, footsteps, and the creak of cold branches.

  And he sees these same little purple flowers that fall from the tree growing anew where Vaughn steps. They push stems out from the cracked earth, from between the massive roots, from under flat stones; they reach up, curling, and the violet buds burst open.

  Arthur presses his bottom to the altar’s edge, gripping it too, his body rigid with slow understanding and panic.

  “You’re the devil,” he says as Vaughn passes close by. The lord is taller, and his gait inhuman, as if his?
??yes, his legs have bent wrong, with an extra joint it seems, the strong rear legs of a horse beneath his trousers, but his feet spread and grow tufts of fur, clawed almost like a wildcat.

  Vaughn laughs. His voice is hollow, echoing on itself, and deep within the laugh Arthur swears he hears the ringing of bells.

  Thorns push out from the lord’s forehead and temples, growing up and hooking in, until he wears a crown of them. They divide and spread like antlers, but flowers bloom, wither, and die, then bloom again, spilling down into his hair and over his cheeks.

  The old god of the forest, Arthur thinks, and it’s Mairwen’s voice whispering the words to him. Then Arthur thinks, I am doomed.

  If he can find a chance to light his fire, maybe he’ll get out. Vaughn seems so enchanted by the Bone Tree, by his own movements and laughter, it might be possible. Arthur slowly reaches in his pocket again for the fire steel. He’ll have one chance to catch the sparks. Thank God he’s already got the rags and dry grass. A spark and a breath and maybe—

  He spins and cracks the ring of steel against the altar. Sparks fly. He bends, cupping his hands around the fodder, and gently blows.

  A wide, gnarled hand presses down over the sparks. Smoke coils around the devil’s fingers. Arthur grabs his knife and spins, cutting simultaneously.

  The blade slashes across Vaughn’s chest, through tunic and into flesh. Blood splashes on Arthur’s face, and Vaughn grabs him by the throat.

  Vaughn lifts Arthur off the ground, holding him high by only the neck. Arthur claws at the devil’s wrist, kicks out; his boot connects hard, but it’s like kicking a giant oak. He grinds his jaw, seething breaths as best he can, holding himself up with the strength in his arms.

  Vaughn contemplates Arthur’s struggle. Blood, thick and reddish and brown, drizzles slow and sticky down his chest. Like sap. His eyes are black through and through, with flecks of brown and white, and his mouth bright red, devastatingly red, his teeth sharp. As Arthur stares, eyes bulging, Vaughn’s skin continues to transform. It darkens in streaks, down from his eyes, gray and purple as if his veins have all burst and spread under his skin, or like death. He’s dying and decomposing before Arthur.