Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 25

  “Why,” the creature Vaughn asks, words thick, “did your mother not take you with her?”

  Arthur hisses, spit flecking his lips, and stars sprinkle through his vision. Black spots pop in his eyes. Blood roars in his ears. He kicks again and again, twisting, but he can’t breathe enough to—to—

  He’s flying backward, tossed easily back, over the altar. He lands in the mess of Bone Tree roots, hard. His body constricts, and he can’t catch a breath.

  Then he’s sucking in air, gasping, coughing, hands on the roots, turning over to crawl up.

  The Bone Tree shakes, and beneath him the earth trembles. Or Arthur is the one shaking, breathing hard.

  A ringing in his ears fades to a lower pitch, and he hears giggling all around him.

  Glancing up through reddened vision, Arthur sees Vaughn at the trunk of the Bone Tree, leaning in to put his cheek against its rough bark. One of his bony hands grips the lowest skull, fingers curled around the bottom jaw like he’s holding on to a skeletal scream.

  His back has broadened, tearing the tunic, and he’s taller, and bright white again. His hair is more like fur, sleek and black, and he glances over his shoulder at Arthur.

  “Alive, still. Well.”

  “I don’t—” It hurts Arthur to speak, but he forces words through his bruised throat. “Why do you . . . care . . . about my . . . mother?”

  “I don’t understand how she could leave her child. I nearly destroyed myself for mine, and your mother just . . . left.”

  “I’d never have left!” Arthur yells.

  The devil, whatever he is, crouches, balanced easily on his wildcat legs, and watches Arthur. “Yes. You’re too like me. I’ve always believed that, too.”

  Arthur shakes his head. “No, no, I’m not.”

  “Too powerful for the place you’re rooted. Wanting more but unable to let go.”

  “No.” Pushing to his knees, Arthur shakes his head again. “I’m not.”

  A moth bats wings against his cheek, and a centipede the size of a snake slips across the back of Arthur’s hand, scurrying toward the tree.

  Flowers continue to fall.

  What did the devil say? Arthur squeezes his eyes tightly shut. I nearly destroyed myself for mine. “What child?” Arthur demands. He coughs, racked with the ache of it from his throat.

  “It doesn’t matter to you, Arthur Couch. I’ll be right there, to snap your neck properly.”

  Arthur begins to crawl away, carefully getting to his feet, though he sways and stumbles back. “So you, what? You wanted more and so you made a bargain with the Grace witches, to leave your forest?”

  “Yes, exactly! A taste of freedom, able to leave these roots, but the roots had to change, they had to have a replacement god.”

  “The devils you gave it hardly replaced you.”

  “Not the devils, not the saints themselves, but the life and death of them. The cycle, you see? Life and death. That is what I am, what has always been the heart of my forest. I tore free by giving the heart a different channel.”

  Arthur can see now what the devil is doing: He’s caressing the Bone Tree, slowly coaxing it to open, so that the heavy white bark draws back from a crevasse. “Are you going back in?”

  “Planting a new seed, Arthur Couch.”

  “With what?”

  Then Vaughn smiles again. “Here it comes.”

  Screams of laughter erupt behind Arthur, and he turns. Something is coming, dragging something else behind it.

  Arthur stands, holding on to the altar for strength.

  The devil—Baeddan.

  Arthur steps closer, but Baeddan doesn’t see him. His tattered black coat catches and tears on a scraggly bush, but Baeddan continues on, tugging violently at his prize.

  “Baeddan?” Arthur says.

  The devil looks up and grins. “I’ve got the saint, and I’ve got the saint! He’ll be woven into the Bone Tree, Arthur Couch, for now and for ever, and I will be free! Oh, I am hungry.”

  Panic slices through Arthur, and he runs toward Baeddan. “Rhun?” he gasps, skidding to a stop at the edge of the grove.

  “Ha, ha, ha!” says Baeddan, then deteriorates into rasping, devilish laughter.

  It is a body Baeddan was dragging behind him. There’s a roaring in Arthur’s ears as he closes in. Baeddan grabs the saint’s hair, jerking his head up.

  John Upjohn.

  The energy of Baeddan’s gesture pulls the man’s eyes half open, and his jaw is slack. His arms dangle so that his single hand has scraped bloody and raw against the earth. Dirt and leaves cover his chest, and the front of his jerkin is torn.

  “He’s dead already,” Arthur says softly.

  Baeddan snorts and drags Upjohn by the hair. Chunks of blond rip free, and Arthur leaps forward, shoving his shoulder into Baeddan. “Let go. Get off him!” Arthur yells. But Baeddan growls, swings his arm, and backhands Arthur.

  Pain blackens his vision and blood bursts in Arthur’s mouth as his teeth cut into his cheek. He blinks away dark stars, scrambling for Baeddan again. “Stop, Baeddan.” He grabs at Baeddan’s bare, scarred chest, hitting hard.

  Baeddan grunts.

  Arthur crouches over John Upjohn, wincing so the surge of sorrow he feels doesn’t appear on his face, but only flows through him, spilling out in ragged, heaving breaths. He spits blood onto the leaves. The old saint is limp. Dead. A great scratch claws across his left eye and down his nose.

  “Dead?” whispers Baeddan.

  “Dead,” says Arthur as if it’s a curse.

  “Well, then,” Vaughn drawls behind them, having watched their drama from the heart of the grove. “I suppose, Arthur Couch, you’ll be useful after all.”

  • • •

  “THE BARGAIN IS BROKEN,” RHUN says to Judith and Ben, both of whom stare at the smoldering remains of his bracelet. He won’t hide it. He wonders if Arthur has realized it, if Mairwen feels it, and if they’ll all three find each other again.

  “What are we going to do?” Ben asks again.

  And suddenly, seeing the couple there in the powerful sunlight, silver with clouds, Rhun understands: We is right.

  Everyone was complicit in the secret, even if they didn’t know. So everyone has to be just as complicit in the solution. Not a handful of people making choices for all, not the Grace witches or even just him and Arthur. Everybody who benefits or suffers must decide together. Heat flushes his face, like triumph, and he says, “We’re going to fix it together. All of Three Graces.”

  “How?” asks Judith.

  Rhun Sayer smiles. “We’re all going to become saints, Judith! Come with me into town.”

  With that, he moves on, revelation unfurling like wings on his back.

  When he reaches the first houses, he slows. He calls out, “People of Three Graces, this is Rhun Sayer! You named me your saint, and by that honor I ask you to listen! Come to the center now, the bonfire. Bring coats and boots. Bring a weapon if you must! But come. This is Rhun Sayer, your twenty-eighth saint, and I’m asking this of you!”

  Rhun walks on, curving through three of the side streets, crying out his message again and again. He says the names of the people he sees, calling them with the power of their families and histories.

  “This is Rhun Sayer!” he yells from the spiral town square. He plants his feet and cups hands around his mouth. “Listen to me!”

  More and more gather, slowly some, but others arriving as if they’ve waited all their lives to be called. It does not escape his notice that the first to come are children and young people, the runners and their cousins and friends. Rhun nods at them. His chest heaves with effort and sparks of excitement. He’s neither afraid nor happy, not delighted nor spinning into panic. He is truly, finally ready, like he’s never been, because there is nothing to hide now.

  Rhun Sayer wants to live, but more than that, he wants everyone to see him. Not his destiny, not what he’s promised, not some fabled quality of goodness that makes him the
best. No, he wants them to see the answers to all the secrets in his heart: He loves them so much, and he loves this valley so much, he has to make them all saints. Every last one of them. He’s changed, and they all need to change with him. To choose it. Nobody will be lied to, nobody will be innocent. Everyone will choose together.

  He sees his mother arrive, and his father. He sees Arthur’s father, and Cat Dee, Beth Pugh and her brother Ifan. Sayers pour in. All the young men who wanted to be the saint instead of him.

  And then, only then, Rhun smiles.

  A few townsfolk smile back, because they always smile at Rhun Sayer. It’s instinctive.

  “Thank you,” he says. “Thank you for putting down your work, or your fear, to listen. You know what the bargain we’ve lived under for two hundred years truly is. Every saint died, none survived until John Upjohn, and me. We tried to bind the bargain, Mairwen, Arthur, and I. We managed it, but it didn’t last.” He holds up his bare arm. “The charm is broken. The bargain is gone. Because we didn’t bind it with death. There’s no balance to the life we’re given. How can we expect to live as we do without sacrifice?” Rhun laughs softly and with despair at his former ignorance. Shaking his head, he scans the shifting group of friends and neighbors, his family. They’re eyeing each other and eyeing him. Silent. As if they’re unwilling to argue but cannot quite step into sync with him.

  “We’ll die!” someone from the back calls.

  “We always die,” snaps Beth Pugh.

  Gethin Couch shoves to the fore. “Are you going to die, then, Rhun Sayer? Or my son? How will we remake this bargain?”

  “I don’t know,” Rhun says. “But we have to do it, all of us. Everyone who will benefit must agree to the price. Everyone hold the weight together.” He holds out his hands. “Come with me into the forest, all of you.”

  Cries of protest and hushed fear burst out, with a few promising yays peppered through.

  Rhun nods again, meeting the eyes of all he can reach. “Be brave,” he says. “Be your best! Mom, Dad, all you Sayers I know have this running in your blood. And you, Braith Bowen, you’re strong and you want to keep your family safe. You, Beth, and all of you women who know what fire feels like. Brothers and sisters who can’t imagine any other way, let me show it to you.”

  “You’re not our leader, Rhun Sayer,” calls Evan Prichard. “You’re young. A saint, to be sure, but you’re reckless. You and your friends are the ones who changed it all. It was working! Why should we want anything different?”

  “It was working at the price of my life,” Rhun says.

  “You knew that—you competed for the honor!”

  Some are agreeing, but Rhun sees in others how much they want Rhun to dissuade Evan Prichard, how much they’d like him to be wrong. They sense it, they just can’t convince themselves.

  Rhun says, “I was lied to. I thought I had a chance. Baeddan Sayer didn’t walk in to his certain death. And John Upjohn wanted desperately to live! Carey Morgan had a daughter on the way! Who’s to say they’d have won the sainthood if they’d known? Would you, Per Argall, have stood at my side and answered the question what makes you best if you’d known?”

  The young man’s eyes pinch, his hands fist, but he doesn’t look away. “I don’t know, Rhun,” he admits, quiet and sorrowful.

  “None of us can know,” Rhun says. “But it was our right to make a real choice. To be truly brave, to know! Without that truth, every joy we all have in this valley is built on a broken foundation! A secret that kills us.”

  Nobody else is leaving; they stare at Rhun, awaiting his next breath like he is a piece of God.

  Rhun feels the weight of it. He always has. So he breathes hard and says, “We all have a best self. We only have to choose to let it rule us. Your best selves know what I know: We must to do this together. Let me show you the Devil’s Forest.”

  Just then a woman screams, “The devil took John!”

  It’s Lace Upjohn, weeping and dragging her daughter behind her.

  “What?” Rhun dives toward her, and the crowd parts.

  “That devil, who was Baeddan Sayer, who you brought out of the forest, broke into my house and dragged my son away! What will you do about that, Rhun?” Her voice is tight and accusing.

  Rhun accepts the blame. He clenches his jaw. “I’ll go into the forest and stop it. I’ll fight for John’s life and the lives of everybody here.”

  “Maybe you should let the devil take him,” says Gethin Couch, and judging by the scatter of nods, he isn’t the only one to think it.

  “How dare you!” cries Lace.

  “You said goodbye to him,” Gethin snaps, leaning into her face.

  “I’m not willing to let that happen, Gethin,” Rhun says.

  “Some of us are. That’s the bargain, like you say, and we need it.”

  Braith Bowen calls, “Could you sleep tonight, you heartless bastard?”

  Evan Prichard calls back, “I sleep every night, except the Slaughter Moon, always knowing we threw a boy to die in the forest. It’s the same.”

  Too many reply at once. It’s a cacophony, and Lace Upjohn wipes tears off her face, snatches a knife from Gethin Couch’s belt, and marches away, northward.

  “I’m going to the Bone Tree!” Rhun yells as loudly as he can. “Go with me if you want to be the best! If you want to deserve this life we have.”

  Little Bree Lewis says, “My sister would go with you. I’ll go too.”

  Per and Dar Argall step out, axes in hand. “Lead on, Rhun.”

  From the side, Rhun the Elder brings a bow and arrow.

  When Rhun accepts the weapon, it triggers a landslide of volunteers. Not everybody, not nearly, but Rhun has no time to rally the resistant. He’ll accept these, mostly young men and women, who have not lived so long with nothing to fight for they don’t know how to risk it all. Some of their parents, some cousins, most of the Sayer clan. Ben Heir, though he makes Judith swear to remain and stay safe.

  With him, when he strides toward the Devil’s Forest, are all the folk of Three Graces who ever had it in them to be brave.

  • • •

  BRANCHES AND LEAVES SLAP MAIRWEN in the face as she careens down the mountain, barely staying on her feet. Haf is far behind, though following. Mair can’t quite bring herself to slow down for her friend, not when the forest is almost gone from her blood, when she’s dizzy with the lack of it, when her heart aches like it’s broken in half.

  She flies into the sheep fields, cutting north and east, toward the forest. Her lungs burn, but her legs are strong and her arms pump, grasping at the air before her as if to drag her faster. Wind tears at her head, and tiny flower petals flutter behind her, shredded and falling from her hair.

  As she runs around the rear of the Grace cottage, she glances at the chimney: no smoke. She comes around, ready to press on to the horse pasture, but someone huddles inside the yard, just next to the front door, which hangs half open.

  Though she needs to continue into the Devil’s Forest, Mairwen slows, drawn back with an inexorable sense of dread.

  The decision is made before she realizes it, and Mair runs urgently to her home and shoves through the gate, cutting her palm on stray gooseberry bramble. It’s Hetty kneeling beside the front door, arms over her head, bent in half. Her long fingers are dug into her glossy hair, fisting and relaxing again and again.

  “Hetty?” Mairwen says through heavy panting.

  The older woman lifts her head: Tears streak the freckled cheeks, and blood has crusted at the corner of her mouth. “Mair, I’m so, so sorry. I couldn’t stop him. Your mother . . .”

  Sucking air through her teeth, Mairwen darts inside the cottage. The door swings hard against the wall, then shuts behind her.

  In the dim light, at first everything appears normal. The kitchen table, the benches, all the bundles of dried herbs hanging from the rafters. Her boots where she left them yesterday—yesterday?—before going into town for the celebration, slouched b
eside the ladder to her loft.

  Except the fire is dead, and ashes and black chunks of charcoal fan out from the hearth as if the fire exploded in a great gust.

  And across the hearthstone lies her mother.

  Or what is left of the last Grace witch.

  Aderyn’s eyes are closed, her lips gently parted as if in pleased dreaming. Hands relaxed at her sides, palms up, and her skirts folded at her calves. Like Aderyn simply stretched herself out to sleep.

  But her chest is a mass of dark blood and blossoming violas, or something like violas, if those tiny purple flowers ever grew in thick braided vines. The flowers pierce straight out of her heart, erupting through her ribs to knot about her sternum and between her breasts.

  Mair falls to her knees beside her mother, breathing hard. She hovers her hands over Aderyn’s cheeks, then over the flowers, one finger brushing the tip of a petal. Then she covers her own mouth against a wail.

  Aderyn’s lips twitch and she draws a breath.

  “Mother!” Mairwen shrieks, grasping one cold hand.

  “Mairwen,” her mother whispers.

  “Who did this to you? What happened? How can I help?”

  “I’m dying, little bird.”

  The words are so soft, Mairwen must lean forward. “No. There must be some charm, something for me to say, to banish these flowers. The forest is—it is leaving me. It must leave you, too.”

  Aderyn’s brow creases and she whispers, “This is the death for all Grace witches. The flowers in our heart burst, and we become flowers.”

  Mairwen frowns. “But you weren’t called to the forest. Not yet! You didn’t . . .”

  trees shake, and moonlight coalesces into figures and faces, pushing free of the trees, gathering light to them as sheer veils. Nine women, with flowers growing out of their chests. They remain before their trees, all but one, who

  Shaking the memory away, Mairwen tells herself, Not yet!