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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 27


  Haf touched her forehead against Mairwen’s back and slid her hands around Mairwen’s waist, huddling nearer. When Mairwen whispered her father’s name, Haf whispered it too.

  The Devil’s Forest swayed. Fallen black leaves fluttered on the ground several feet inside it.

  Spare thoughts invaded her concentration: Perhaps she should’ve used the charm at night, for ghosts prefer night, don’t they? She should step inside the forest, kneel in the shadows instead. Or maybe the blessing ribbon was too bound up in her feelings for Rhun Sayer to be the right thread here? Oh, but she wanted to see her father so badly, to ask him where his bones were laid, so she could find a way to gather them up.

  A snap of wood deep in the forest startled Mairwen out of focus. The whistle faded. She stared wide-eyed into the layering shadows, at shifting light deep in the farthest reaches she could see.

  Haf trembled, fingers digging into Mairwen’s sides.

  Mairwen breathed carefully, but her hands were shaking too.

  A figure appeared far away, only a shadow with bright eyes. Strong, like a saint. Mair leaped to her feet. “Dad!” she cried.

  Haf scrambled away, gripping Mair’s skirt. “Mairwen,” she whispered.

  The dark figure crouched. She saw the glint of teeth as it smiled or grimaced or growled. One clawed hand touched the tree beside it.

  Mairwen’s small heart beat faster and faster, and she bared her teeth too. She was afraid and also refused to be afraid. This was not like the red-eyed squirrels and misshapen rabbits. It was not like the tiny birds flitting between the black branches, whispering songs with human words instead of trilling and chirps.

  She knew it was not her father’s ghost.

  Her charm had brought the devil.

  Mairwen stepped back, and back again. “Come on, Haf,” she whispered, walking backward, never looking away from the devil’s eyes until she was far enough from the edge of the forest he blurred into the trees.

  • • •

  SIX YEARS LATER, MAIRWEN DOESN’T hesitate to cross the threshold again, though this time she is alone, with no charms to protect her or even offer comfort.

  The forest is quiet, refusing her its whisper, ignoring her as if she were so insignificant there’s no need to bother.

  Mairwen clenches her teeth.

  She is not nothing. She is a witch and the daughter of a—of a—

  Between. She isn’t a god or a girl. She isn’t a saint or a witch, not only.

  Mairwen runs. Her bare feet find easy footing, and she slips between the trees, just a girl in a tattered gray dress.

  Her breathing is strong, her gaze focused ahead. Her heartbeat does not waver.

  In no time at all she leaps over the creek, pushes through the hedges of red berries, vaults across flint, and into a marsh. She knows the way, because she remembers all of it. Directly to the heart of the forest.

  On and on she runs, swift and sure as a deer.

  The Bone Tree towers over its grove, and she steps quietly in, heart pounding, ears ringing. Exactly as she remembers.

  And the ground is littered with tiny purple flowers. Viola blossoms.

  Baeddan huddles against the altar, and atop it a person is stretched out, tangled in vines and flowers, dripping blood from wrist and ankle. She steps nearer the altar, fear tightening her throat. Strands of angry blond hair escape the vines, and she knows.

  Before she can dash to him, she sees John Upjohn sprawled just in front of her, obviously dead. Tears burn, but she refuses to allow them to spill. No.

  “Arthur,” she says, stepping over John. “Arthur, can you hear me?”

  Baeddan’s head jerks up. “Go back, go back, Grace witch!” he hisses.

  Too late.

  “Mairwen!” calls a warm, delighted voice. “You came!”

  He is there: walking around the base of the Bone Tree. Sy Vaughn, his russet hair curled around his face, bright and summery. He smiles, and his skin glows as if suntanned, his eyes bright. His coat is brown and green, leather and rich velvet, and fur at the collar. His black boots are polished. He is the picture of a man in perfect health and prosperity.

  But as he walks down a long, curved root toward her, he changes. His eyes blacken and thorns sprout from his cheeks. His teeth lengthen and his lips turn bloodred. His shoulders widen, his legs grow longer and his clothes hug him, transforming into leathery wings, strips of fur, and thick green moss trailing down his hip and thigh. Antlers rise from his head, forking again and again, then cracking and falling away into scarlet autumn leaves. His hair flowers and his hands turn to claws. Feathers appear down his hard stomach, soft and downy as a young owl’s.

  Mairwen stares, amazed.

  He clomps around the altar on heavy hooves, rounded like a horse’s, and he stretches his arms out; feathers sprout and fall away. His nose lengthens to a snout, tusks press out of his mouth, curling and curling before turning into vines that snake back over his shoulders. Lichen grows down his forehead, dark orange.

  Then he’s bloating and turning ugly purple. Pale blood falls from his nose, and his eyes turn white. His skin shucks away, but instead of meat and bone, there he is perfect again: Sy Vaughn with russet hair and butter-pale skin.

  “See, my love?” he says.

  It begins again, but this time his skin hardens into gray granite exactly like the altar stone, paling to the white, fissured bark of the Bone Tree. His eyes are perfect purple like the violas.

  “You’re the god of the forest,” she whispers.

  “You’re my daughter.”

  She ignores it, pushing it away, under the throbbing of her frightened heart. “Why did you come back into the forest now? Why did you hurt my mother?”

  “The magic has been tugging at me for years. It was time to come home and reset the bargain myself. Aderyn . . .” He sighs, making a grating sound like stone on stone. “My darling Aderyn was remembering me finally, because all the charms were fading, and I wish I could let her—I miss her, my witch—but I needed her blood.”

  “For what?”

  Vaughn sweeps his arm toward the altar, and Arthur. “To anoint a new saint.”

  Mairwen shifts nearer to Arthur, clutching her hands together against her sternum. “Is it too late?”

  “For him? He’ll take Baeddan’s place, and you’ll speak with him again.”

  “That isn’t . . . Don’t do that.” She looks at Vaughn’s eyes, black and brown now, and intentionally holds his gaze while she says, “Please.”

  He laughs: a dark, pleasant rumble that vibrates the ground beneath her bare feet. From all around the laughter echoes in giggles and shrieks. Mairwen’s spine stiffens, for she’d not realized they were surrounded by denizens of the forest. “That worked once, to save the life of a saint, but I cannot let it work again.”

  She frowns, suddenly realizes something that tumbles out of her mouth. “You knew leaving John alive would break the bargain. That it would weaken the magic, and—and yourself.”

  “It was the only thing you ever asked of me.” His voice is tender, awkward around the fangs pressing against pink lips. He never stops shifting, transforming, dying, living again.

  Mairwen only stares, stunned.

  The old god of the forest adds, “It was worth it, for you.”

  She blinks, and tears fall down her cheeks in straight lines.

  “I didn’t know I wanted you until you were here,” he says. “I never had a child before you. Yet when you were born, I went to Addie and I held you. It was the first time since I left the forest that I had made life, that I had sown life again. I used to. Here in the forest, I was part of it all. Life and death, stars and rot—”

  “Heartbeat and roots,” Mairwen whispers with him, shivering.

  Her father smiles. “I looked at you and longed for the day you’d be old enough to understand, to see me.”

  Mairwen has no word for the feeling swelling inside her; it is light and gentle, but promising more, like dawn
or rising bread. She wants it, to live in its spaces, despite knowing it’s not real, or not enough to last. But Arthur is dying. Her mother is dying. This creature—god, father, everything he is—cannot have them.

  “You took my magic away,” she finally says. “It was changing me, but you sucked it all back in when you came here.”

  “I’d have died if I did not come and see the heart of the forest reborn. The bargain keeps me free, and it is entirely broken. You broke it.”

  “I would have seen you better if you’d shown yourself when I had thorns in my bones and flowers in my blood.”

  Vaughn smiles. “You can have it again. Eat a flower from his heart and take the power back, Daughter.”

  She looks at Arthur, at the tiny purple flowers blooming from his chest, the lines of blood dripping down the sides of the altar stone. At Baeddan, who trembles, whose skin is sinking against his skull. He is dying too.

  “I know you, Mairwen. I know you want this,” the god says eagerly, holding out a hand to her. “You are everything I hoped. Brave and bold and powerful, my daughter.”

  She glances down at the flowers curling around his toes. A thin path of them trails behind him, climbing the roots of the Bone Tree, painting its white bark green and violet.

  Vaughn says, “You are bound to this place because my blood makes you part of it, Mairwen. Grace blood and the blood of the forest itself! Ah.” He laughs. “We can have all of this, all the power. You and me, a family.”

  The hand he holds to her urges her to clasp it, with gnarled wood fingers, and a spark of wild joy. “Daughter,” he says. She wants him to be earnest. To want her for herself and the possibility in his words, not for power.

  Mairwen slides her fingers along his, her thumbs spreading across his palm. She stares at the lines forming in this bark-skin and brings his hand to her face. She presses her cheek into it, turns and kisses the ball of his thumb. It smells like musty roots.

  “You and me, Mairwen,” the god tempts. “No one in Three Graces will stand against us if we are united.”

  “No,” she murmurs quietly. Her family is Rhun and Arthur and Haf, her mother, yes, and even this devil tempting her. Her toes are cool against the forest floor; she feels vital energy strung through the earth of roots.

  “No!” Vaughn is genuinely surprised.

  “Mairwen already has a family,” Rhun Sayer calls from the edge of the grove.

  • • •

  RHUN’S SHOULDERS RISE AND FALL hard as he pauses at the edge of the Bone Tree’s grove to collect himself. He heard enough of Mair’s and the devil’s conversation to know this is the old god, and the old god is both Vaughn and Mair’s real father. Her father who is offering her all the power of the forest she’s ever longed for.

  Somehow, Rhun is not surprised. No, he thinks as he watches Mairwen touch her father’s hand and consider, he is surprised; it’s just that he isn’t worried. He’ll deal with these revelations, but there’s no sliver of doubt in his heart what Mairwen will do. He’s very likely more sure of her than she is of herself in this moment.

  “Mairwen already has a family,” he says confidently, emerging fully into the grove.

  Mairwen spins to him, and Baeddan growls, stumbling to his feet.

  The devil—the god—grins. “Rhun, welcome, and welcome all who’ve come in your wake. Bree, Per, Rhun the Elder! Nona, I’m not surprised. Braith and even you, Cat Dee! You must be determined, to have made it here on those tired old legs. Welcome to the heart of my forest. Ah, is that you, Lace?”

  Sy Vaughn is recognizable by everyone, despite the thorns and flowers twisting into a crown among his curls, despite the sharp teeth and black eyes. His bearing is as noble as they’ve always been used to, and his voice only slightly more gravelly.

  They all remember him now: There was no previous Lord Vaughn, but only this one, young and handsome, for two hundred years.

  “Rhun,” Mairwen says, but Lace Upjohn pushes into the grove and limps to the body of her son.

  “Oh, John, no,” she whispers, hands shaking. “You did this, Mairwen Grace.”

  Mair steps away from her, stricken.

  Cat Dee says, “No. It was him. That creature.”

  The townsfolk who followed Rhun hesitantly join them under the spreading white branches of the Bone Tree.

  It’s Vaughn who goes to Lace and crouches. “I am so very sorry, Lace. We’ll celebrate that he had three extra years to live, to be with you.”

  She looks up at him with teary eyes, her son’s cold hand in both of hers. “What are you?”

  “The forest, dear lady. I’m the forest god, and also your lord, whom you’ve known all your life.”

  “I remember,” Lace murmurs. She blinks at him, seeming unafraid.

  Rhun says, “We’re here to make a new bargain, or end it forever, Vaughn. All of us.”

  The devil glances at him, standing up on tall legs. Bree Lewis and Ginny Argall crouch with Lace, helping her hold on to John.

  “Well, Rhun Sayer, what makes you think you’re in any position to bargain?”

  “We won’t give you more saints. We’re all here to decide what to do together.”

  The devil smiles, and laughs, a sound like thunder and bells, both. Rhun clenches his jaw.

  “Arthur is already on the altar,” Mairwen says quietly; the words travel, though, and Rhun jerks his head up.

  There is a body on the altar, wound in vines and bleeding, too. “No,” he says, and runs.

  But Baeddan knocks him back with a hard arm. Rhun hits the ground, breath whooshing out of him, and gets up as quickly as he can. His cousin steps near, gripping Rhun’s upper arms. He sings, “You can’t pass me, saint-saint-saint. This is the only way I’ll be free-free-free.”

  “Baeddan, let me go. You know it’s wrong. Arthur isn’t a saint. He isn’t one of us.” Rhun doesn’t believe it. He believes Arthur’s heart is so very worthy, but he pleads anyway, whatever he needs to say to move to the altar.

  His cousin’s eyes are blacker than river muck again, dull and quiet. Baeddan’s skin is sunken to his skull; his breath comes fast, dry, and smelling of mold.

  Distantly, he hears Mairwen say something, and the devil reply, but Rhun puts his hands on Baeddan’s chest. He shoves, leaning all his weight against Baeddan. “Let me by.”

  “I cannot, cousin. Brother.” Baeddan shakes his head and begins pushing Rhun back and back, with the strength of a mountain. He bares teeth of hard, pointed granite. Black thorns break through the thin, cracking skin along his jawbone, as if the effort is changing him again.

  “I love him,” Rhun says.

  “I know. It doesn’t—I can’t fight—the forest. It is inside me. I’m inside it. I am a flame in a lantern and the glass trapping my own heat, saint. I am—I am roots and earthworms. They crawl inside my stomach and it tickles, Rhun Sayer. It tickles.” Baeddan giggles, fingers tightening on Rhun’s arms, bruising. “My lungs are dry leaves. My heart—my heart is flower petals.”

  At the edges of the grove appear spirits—white-veiled ghosts. Screams erupt as a hundred bird women dart about the grove, flapping and chattering curses, followed by running bone creatures who cut at the villagers with hard fingers and yelling maniacally. Decaying wolves howl, teeth falling from their mouths, and everyone from Three Graces crowds together, kicking and reaching out with axes and brooms, defending themselves.

  “Stop!” roars Sy Vaughn, arms out, flowers catching fire in his hair.

  The tiny monsters and little devils flee, and Rhun ignores it all, breathing hard and evenly, staring at his cousin.

  Rhun stops struggling. He relaxes. “All right, Baeddan. I understand.” And he does. He knows what he must do to save Arthur.

  Baeddan’s shoulders slump. “Good, good. I’m sorry about Arthur. His heart will last. It will last, and he’ll remember you for—for a while. I’ll be in the Bone Tree, watching with empty eyes and smiling a bare-boned smile.” Baeddan laughs sharply at his own
terrible joke. Then he lets go of Rhun.

  Rhun grabs the handle of the knife in his boot. Nothing else matters around him except holding his cousin’s churning black gaze as he snaps up again and slides the blade deep and fast across Baeddan’s neck.

  • • •

  “SEE,” THE OLD GOD SAYS after Mairwen tells everyone Arthur is on the altar and Rhun is stopped by Baeddan. “See, everyone, there already is a saint sacrificed, and I will tend the transformation. You have seven more years, and all you need do is return to your lives.”

  “I won’t leave without Arthur,” Mairwen says to Vaughn, then turns her gaze onto all the people of Three Graces brave enough to come with Rhun. She is proud of them. “We can’t leave him to die, to become what Baeddan became.”

  “It is the only way to put life back into the forest, Mairwen. See all these poor creatures, neither alive nor dead, like Baeddan. Would you have the forest fester and perish?”

  Haf bursts out of the trees. “Mair! There . . .” She bends over, panting, and leans her hands on her knees. “I saw your mother! I saw Hetty.”

  Mairwen clenches her jaw.

  “You cannot stop the sacrifice, Mairwen,” Vaughn says. Somehow he’s slowed his constant cycle of changing, fixed himself as the summery Vaughn, with only hints of wildness: thorns, antlers, flowers. Mairwen understands he doesn’t wish to frighten the people. He looks like a god from a story: beautiful and strange, but not monstrous.

  “I’ll stop you.”

  “Not like this,” he says with a smile. “Not unless you eat a flower from his heart and take up your power again.”

  She shakes her head.

  Braith Bowen says, hands in fists at his sides, “Lord Vaughn, I . . . We came with Rhun because we want to know the truth. We want to be part of the decisions.”

  “Yes, we must!” says Bree Lewis from beside John Upjohn’s body; she’s holding on to Lace’s arm.

  “Let us all bargain with you,” Nona Sayer demands. She’s flanked by Alis Sayer, Delia Sayer, her husband and a dozen Sayer men and boys.

  The devil rolls his shoulders and feathers burst from them, trailing down into massive wings. “Yes,” he says through a mouth of curved fangs, “bargain with me. What would you offer for peace and prosperity in the valley? If not one of your hearts?”