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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 28


  Mairwen crouches, puts her hands to the earth. “Forest,” she whispers. “I need you to wake again in my blood.”

  Daughter of the forest. Mairwen Grace.

  The ghosts of all the Grace witches appear around the boundary of the grove. Mairwen sucks in a quiet breath just as bird women shriek and the forest denizens leap in to fling rocks at the ghosts, to tear at the skirts and boots of the men and women who do not belong here in the Devil’s Forest.

  “Stop!” commands Vaughn, and the goblins, bone monsters, and bird women dart away, dashing and slipping into the shadows again. “Hello, Grace,” he says, turning to the youngest girl, who smiles beneath her veil.

  “My heart,” the first Grace says. “It is too long since you visited me here.”

  “I could not come back inside once the charm was done, my love.”

  “How can you love her?” Mairwen says. “You used her for your freedom.”

  “I love her and I used her, little bird. Most things in this world are more than one thing.”

  Gasping with understanding, Mairwen stands and goes to the first Grace. “Give me my power back.”

  “Take it,” Grace murmurs, lips hardly moving.

  A guttural sound distracts her, and Mairwen spins to Rhun just in time to see him cut Baeddan’s throat.

  Dust and motes of light splatter from the wound. No blood.

  The wound burns in Mair’s gut, as if she had been stabbed. “No,” she says, rushing to the dying devil.

  Vines crawl out of Baeddan Sayer’s flesh, pulling him apart, and smoke puffs out of his lips, rises from the corners of his eyes like upside-down tears. He bares his sharp teeth and they’re falling out, spinning as they tumble to the ground. Baeddan continues to laugh, throws back his head and grasps Rhun’s shoulders again. Rhun throws his arms around his cousin, loving him, and afraid.

  They collapse together. It smells like fire and sharp metal, and Baeddan crumbles in Rhun’s hands, turning to embers and ash, dirt and cutting brambles, hooked thorns and even flowers, desiccated and colorless.

  The vines on the altar twist and tighten, and three more flowers burst open.

  Tears fall from Rhun’s eyes.

  Mairwen, crying too, kneels beside Rhun and digs into the flowers, into the brittle bones, to find the chunk of thorns that was Baeddan’s heart. She pries the knife from Rhun’s hand. She slices it across her chest and throws it down, then presses the heart to the long, fiery line of blood. It crumbles, and Mairwen licks the ashes from her palm.

  Thorns and brambles explode up from the earth, surrounding her in a violent nest.

  Rhun stumbles away from the thorns, gasping her name, then runs for the altar.

  While most are fumbling back, a few follow Rhun, and the Sayer women surround Vaughn, arrows out like swords, an ax in each of Nona’s hands. The spirit women drift nearer; the first Grace smiles at Vaughn, widening to a grin as the feathers of his wings shrivel to ashes. His life and death cycle begins again.

  Inside her cocoon of thorns, Mairwen shivers and cries at the slick, heavy dragging of her blood, as vines and flowers push free, as they knot in her stomach and crack her bones. Her collar burns as thorns grow again, all at once, and her nails darken.

  At the altar, Rhun begins sawing at the vines, ripping as best he can. Haf helps, as do his father and Braith. There is Arthur’s throat, and there his mouth, open, flowers spilling out.

  “It can’t be too late,” he whispers, touching Arthur’s cheeks, his lips. “Arthur, wake up! Baeddan is dead. You cannot be too.” He kisses Arthur’s eyebrow, as the others continue dragging the vines free. Blood splashes when they cut free the thorny vines about his wrists, tearing them from his flesh.

  Arthur jerks, back bowed. He opens his mouth and screams silently.

  Mairwen, still inside the nest of brambles, grasps a vine, cutting open her palms. Where her blood falls, flowers blossom in tiny white clusters like yarrow. She tears open a way through the briars and emerges.

  “Arthur, I’m here. It’s all right,” Rhun is saying. “I won’t let the forest have your heart. It’s mine.”

  “Let that saint on the altar go,” Mairwen commands the Bone Tree.

  Vaughn says, “You cannot defeat me, Daughter. Your power is only life, not death. You have to be both. You have to let it change you completely. That is real power: change.”

  “Stopping you is enough,” she says. The forest pours out of her mouth, burning her eyes until they are black coal, and her lips crack. Yarrow blooms and falls, and her hair is a briar, too, curling over itself as tender green shoots emerge and twine into the thorns.

  Arthur Couch sits up, coughing blood and petals. He spits and falls off the altar, against Rhun’s chest. He cannot focus his eyes, but hears roaring and bells all around him. His body is weak; Rhun holds him up. Every beat of his heart thumps through his bones.

  The Bone Tree creaks and shudders, bursting with scarlet leaves: the signal for a Slaughter Moon.

  “There,” Mairwen says through the flowers on her tongue. “The bargain is broken again. The tree needs a heart, and you will not have any of ours.”

  “Your crops will fail, the rain will not come, then, and your babies will die,” the old god says. Fur grows down his cheeks, antlers from his head. His back bends and he sinks to the four delicate legs of a stag, transforming completely.

  This is my heart tree. You will all suffer without me! Locking me here again, he says as the fur falls away in chunks and the stag’s antlers become naked branches, as he rots and is only bones, then covered in new flowers again and rises onto two legs: a bear, a man, a creature of lichen and mud and clay, a beautiful man again, with leathery bat wings and a mouth of heavy molars. “Make me a bargain,” he says through the rocks. “Daughter. They’ll hate you if you do not, if their children die. If you all starve. You won’t be welcome in your valley, and you will not be welcome here, where your heart is.”

  Mairwen stares, exhausted already, aching and barely holding tight to the flaring edges of the magic that courses through her veins, bulging them, overwhelming her heart.

  “You’re a witch, Mairwen!” screams Haf Lewis. “Be a witch!”

  She looks at Haf, whose cheeks are marred by tears, and she looks at the first Grace, who is smiling. Then she looks at Rhun Sayer and Arthur Couch, holding on to each other against the altar. Arthur catches her eye, and she sees that circling the first three fingers of his right hand is his fire steel.

  She told Haf being a witch was being in between: seeing both sides, all sides, seeing what others cannot and using that power to choose. To change the world.

  Your power is only life, not death. You have to be both. You have to let it change you completely. That is real power: change.

  “Arthur,” she says. “Do what you came here to do.”

  The old god cries out, half in fury, half laughter. The forest leans in, grabbing at the people. Bone creatures attack, and the bird women shriek.

  Mairwen does not wait. She runs for the Bone Tree, scrambling up its roots to the black hollow her father coaxed open. Diving in to the sticky, cold womb, she turns and looks down at Arthur.

  Steadying himself against Rhun, who fights at his back, keeping the monsters away, Arthur lifts the fire steel. His lips make the shape of her name.

  “I love you,” she says, though nobody can hear it. “Both of you, and all of you. Hold on to my heart and I’ll be fine. Now do it.”

  His nostrils flare as he takes a furious breath, and Arthur Couch strikes a spark.

  • • •

  THE ALTAR IGNITES. THE DRY and cracked vines, fueled by blood and crisp flower petals, light, and the old god laughs.

  He laughs because a fire is not enough to hurt him. The Bone Tree will be born again after it dies.

  But the first Grace, his Grace, appears before him and smiles. “Your daughter is in the heart of the tree.”

  The old god looks and there Mairwen is, pressed to the d
ank inner wood, digging her claws into its heart, letting the flowers from her mouth twine against the flaking white bark of the tree.

  Arthur picks up a burning branch, nudges Rhun, and takes the fire with him as he climbs nearer to Mairwen, then plunges the flames into the roots. Rhun says, “No!” but Arthur answers, “Trust me. Trust her,” so Rhun lifts a thick vine snaking with fire and drapes it at the foot of the Bone Tree. Haf Lewis helps, and her little sister. The rest battle the desperate creatures of the forest, the half-living, half-dead bone creatures, the monstrous birds and rodents, the bending, shifting trees.

  The old god warns, “This will ruin you all,” still thinking he can stop them and also never afraid of death and inevitable rebirth. “Mairwen, I’ll go with you. We’ll be reborn together.”

  “No,” she whispers, thinking of her mother. Mairwen Grace pulls on her heart, and the old god falters. He falls to his knees.

  “Mairwen.”

  “Father,” she whispers, but he hears it. Deep in his flesh and beyond his bones, he hears her voice.

  As the Bone Tree burns, Mairwen closes her eyes and presses her palms to the angry wound on her breast, to the ruins of Baeddan’s thorny heart, the dying heart of the forest, the key to the bargain. She makes it grow.

  Flowers burst from the old god’s mouth. His hands grow into the roots and earth, trapping him.

  Fire flickers around the god and his daughter, licking at both, casting a web of shadows across Mairwen’s face.

  The old god coughs, dying again, and Mairwen says, “It will be mine now. My heart, my forest.”

  She weaves briars across the hollow mouth of the Bone Tree, and she is alone in the darkness.

  Except, she will never be truly alone, because her heart belongs to more than one.

  • • •

  WHEN MAIRWEN, ARTHUR, AND RHUN climbed onto the altar together, in the final moments of their Slaughter Moon, they put still-bleeding bone bracelets around each other’s wrists and held hands. They cried out the words of their charm, holding tight, eyes closed, heads thrown back. We are the saints of Three Graces!

  It felt like drowning, painful and desperate. It felt like waking from the worst nightmare. It felt like fire, and it felt like their hearts beat so fast they hummed.

  When the Bone Tree is consumed by flame, it feels the same.

  • • •

  THERE IS ONLY FIRE. NO balance, no peace, only the burning destruction, reaching in every direction out and down and even up, up, up toward the sky.

  Wind swirls, dragging sparks from the Bone Tree, and flash fires break out, lighting up a tree here and there. Bird women fly too near and go up in a burst of lightning flame.

  Rhun and Arthur hold on to each other, and Haf Lewis puts her hand on Arthur’s back. Her little sister holds her hand, and Per Argall holds Bree’s, and on and on until every person from Three Graces still in the grove links themselves together.

  “We are the saints of Three Graces,” Rhun says too soft for anyone to hear over the fire. But it’s his prayer and the forest knows.

  Mairwen opens her eyes in the center of the firestorm. It hurts. She pushes out with her magic and wonders if she can die faster, but no—she has to be with the tree if she wants to transform. If she wants to take all her power.

  That is what she clings to: transformation.

  In the forest, life to death to life is the spark, the seed of magic.

  Life and death, and Grace in between.

  Mairwen, in between. Both. She will survive.

  She grinds her teeth as the heat overwhelms her and she cannot breathe at all. She gasps, coughs, cannot stop coughing. Her muscles spasm and she bends in half, falling, cracking her shape and losing all sight and hearing, all feeling but for the fire.

  • • •

  THE BONE TREE EXPLODES, FIRE and ashes, flaming branches and billowing streaks of smoke.

  It flings the people back and away, out in an arc.

  Smoke and wind swirl, and nine columns of silvery moonlight stretch up and up, dissipating against the dark twilight sky.

  The moon has yet to rise.

  The altar itself is cracked in two: atop it a pile of bones and fur and sinew slowly falling to pieces. All that’s left of Sy Vaughn, an ashy mirror of the ruined Bone Tree.

  Between the altar and the tree, Rhun and Arthur prop each other up.

  Behind them, the grove is empty of everything but human beings. Haf Lewis and her sister clutch tight to each other. Nona Sayer and her husband embrace. Lace huddles over her son’s body. Braith and Cat Dee and Ifan Pugh and Beth Pugh stare at one another, holding hands. They are covered in ashes and flower petals stick in their hair.

  Except for the small grunts and muttering of people slowly picking themselves up, and the creak of the forest stretching itself up again, there’s little sound. The Bone Tree smolders, split in three.

  “Mairwen!” Rhun cries, and it comes out hoarse and empty. Arthur turns, lungs raw as if he sucked down all the fire.

  Neither cares for anything in that moment but her, and they shove around, pulling apart the ashes and hot chunks of roots, hunting. Haf joins them, tears tracking through the spray of ashes on her cheeks. Then others, too.

  A few moments of fruitless hunting bring Rhun and Arthur together again. Rhun looks thrashed, near tears, and Arthur wants to pull out a knife and gouge his skin off as if it would be a welcome distraction. Instead, he just puts his arms around Rhun, holding him close and tight. Rhun’s head falls against Arthur’s, and his shoulders tremble.

  Nobody knows what Mairwen did. Nobody knows if the charm is back in place, if there’s a new bargain, or if their valley is like any other valley now.

  “What story will we tell?” murmurs Haf.

  Arthur brushes his fingertips on Rhun’s sleeve. “Look.”

  Spring-green vines are curling up the remains of the Bone Tree, winding and spiraled. They shoot up, growing unnaturally fast, covering the blackened bark, chipping it away. Soon the entire three splayed pieces of the tree are more emerald than black, more living than charcoal. Tiny white yarrow blossoms.

  Rhun takes Arthur’s hand. Arthur grabs Haf’s, and they pick their way over crumbling roots and new tangles of vines.

  They help each other up the massive base of the tree, to where the three broken pieces of the trunk converge. It’s empty of all but ash, yarrow flowers, and thin, moon-bright bones.

  Every morning as the sun rises, Rhun Sayer and Arthur Couch wait at the edge of the Devil’s Forest. Sometimes Haf Lewis joins them with a basket of bread.

  It’s been twelve days since the Bone Tree burned. No other tree caught fire. John Upjohn is buried in the cemetery under the saints’ memorial. Too little was left of Baeddan, though Rhun picked up a few teeth and a curving rib bone. Haf and Hetty led them to the Grace cottage, where Aderyn Grace’s body was grown straight into the hearthstone, and from her chest a small gray sapling reached up toward the ceiling. Rhun and Arthur climbed onto the roof and pulled apart enough thatching to shed light on the little tree.

  Rain came, just enough, and Rhos Priddy’s baby isn’t doing well, but lives. They’ve finished the harvest, and a dozen people left the valley, including Arthur’s father. Without a bargain, they said, why remain where they cannot achieve greater things? Arthur shrugged and moved his meager belongings from the Sayer barn up into Sy Vaughn’s manor and pointedly took a pair of Rhun’s boots with him. Rhun hasn’t been ready to move out of his family home yet. Not while he doesn’t know. When the sun shines on a patch of fallen red leaves he thinks of Mairwen.

  Twice he and Haf climbed up to the manor house at night and sat around the fire pit where the saints were named, three fat candles burning, just to watch the moonlight against the pale green, flowering branches of the Bone Tree. Arthur always makes them come inside and tell stories to the few other kids who live with him already. Per Argall, for one, and seven-year-old Emma Howell, who says she wants to be a saint. Arthur tel
ls her she can’t, but only because there are no more saints. He’ll still teach her to skin a rabbit and make a fire and whatever else would help her survive alone in the wilderness.

  It takes three days for the burns on Rhun’s and Arthur’s and Haf’s hands to heal completely. Slower than with the bargain, but they wonder if it’s still magic-fast. None in the valley know or remember how long it should take.

  Arthur stares at Rhun one afternoon, when they’re setting a series of rabbit traps. Rhun starts to sweat under the intensity of the look, and backs up against a tree. Arthur pushes off his hunter’s hood and kisses Rhun.

  Closing his eyes, Rhun accepts the kiss, letting Arthur work through it. After an uncooperative moment, Arthur’s mouth softens and he brushes his lips against Rhun’s cheek, too. His eyelashes flutter, teasing Rhun’s skin.

  It breaks some barrier that had been keeping Rhun from demanding what Arthur had been doing at the Bone Tree alone.

  “I went to burn it down,” Arthur says, not moving away. There’s only a handspan of air between them.

  “You shouldn’t have.”

  Arthur shrugs and touches his own lips.

  Rhun can’t let it go, despite his gaze locked on Arthur’s fingers and Arthur’s lips. “We all had to decide together! It doesn’t matter what you learned or how you changed. If you were just going to make a choice alone, make the decision alone, it’s as bad as all the secrets and lies that came before. You don’t get to choose for other people.”

  “There wasn’t really a choice to make. The bargain was wrong. You know it.”

  Reluctantly, Rhun nods. Regret and sorrow drag down at him. He frowns. He misses Mairwen so much. She’d know what to snap at Arthur to make him understand he can’t change people by taking everything over, even if he’s right.

  Arthur sucks in a sharp breath. “I want her back.”

  “Even though she was the devil’s daughter?”

  “We always knew that,” Arthur says with a wry smile.