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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 3

The silence between them twists into brambles.

  “Unless,” Arthur says slowly, “unless something is wrong, actually wrong, and there’s a chance to change it.” The thought sparks fire at the base of Arthur’s spine, and behind his eyes, a passion Arthur usually does not allow Rhun to see.

  Rhun stares at Arthur’s eyes, then mouth, then looks abruptly away.

  “What if we could change it?” Arthur presses, ignoring the meaning of the glance.

  “This is only one patch of diseased barley,” Rhun insists.

  Arthur slides him a disbelieving eye. “Only one patch,” he repeats, hoping that maybe, maybe, in this sudden crack in the bargain there might be a place for his ambitions.

  “We should take it to Mair,” Rhun says.

  “Yes.” Arthur claps his hand on Rhun’s bare shoulder and takes off, skinned carcass of his kill forgotten where it hangs in the tree.

  • • •

  RHUN FOLLOWS AFTER, WATCHING ARTHUR’S slinking walk, the sharp thrust of his arm as he shoves branches out of his path. His friend is prickly as a cat, just as prideful, just as dangerous, just as beautiful. As always, Rhun wishes he could convince Arthur he’s good enough to do anything. He’s known Arthur his whole life—known everybody in Three Graces as long—and liked him when he was a girl, and liked him more after the secret exploded and Arthur turned all jagged and lethal and determined to prove he was the manliest of men with sneers, loneliness, and a weapon in every hand. In any other valley, Arthur would be too pointy for his own good. Here he’s tolerated because nobody is afraid his edges can do any harm.

  If this is a break in the bargain and the valley is losing its safe magic, Rhun needs to find a way to fix it, so nothing bad can happen to Arthur. Or anybody. He’ll find a way. That’s what Sayers are for: keeping everyone safe. Rhun knows who he is and what he wants, so never questions why he’s widely believed to be the best. And Rhun knows Arthur will never be chosen to run, will never be able to compete, because Arthur doesn’t know anything about himself except what he is not The best can never be defined by what it’s not, he said to Arthur once. It did not go well.

  As they push through the narrow footpath toward the Sayer homestead, the sun lowers enough to turn the air from bright orange to a gentle pink, dappled with warm shadows and the first evening birdsong. Woodsmoke finds Rhun’s nose, and he can’t hold on to the verge of fear any longer. The season is changing, and he loves it. He loves summer, too, and spring and winter, for every season brings different work and different things to laugh about. He sighs a great, happy sigh, loud enough Arthur hears it and glances back.

  Arthur recognizes the expression on Rhun’s face and puffs a laugh. “You’re a fool,” he says fondly.

  “Everything will be all right,” Rhun says. “And just as it’s supposed to be. You’ll see.”

  “I could take you more seriously if you had a shirt on.”

  Though it’s Rhun’s instinct to tease Arthur about how good Rhun knows his shoulders and chest look, he refrains, smiling a shrug instead.

  Arthur’s eyes narrow, and he nods, leading the way again. It’s cooling, and it is a beautiful evening, but none of that matters when there’s such a troubling note of uncertainty in the form of that diseased barley. It’s amazing that Rhun, even gregarious, bighearted Rhun, could be so quickly distracted by nothing more than pretty autumn twilight.

  The Sayer homestead consists of three stone buildings: a house, a barn, and a secondary house that’s mostly kitchen and storage this generation. The main house has two full stories instead of only lofts, and a strong slate roof, but the others are thatched like the cottages down in the valley. A fenced-in lawn feeds their goats and gives a walk to the chickens, but all their horses are down in the valley with the rest until the winter sets in. It’s quiet, as most of the Sayers are out helping with the harvest today. Only a thin trail of smoke slips up the chimney, trickling down to nothing as Arthur and Rhun arrive.

  Together they step out of the forest into the flat yard just as a girl shoves out the front door and dashes around the back edge of the house to vanish again into the trees and farther up the mountain.

  “Was that Mairwen?” Arthur asks.

  “It looked like her hair,” Rhun says, disappointed she didn’t see them and stop. He starts on again, but Arthur hesitates, staring after Mairwen. Higher up the mountain from the Sayer homestead is only hunting and Lord Sy Vaughn. Mair is no hunter.

  Rhun puts out his hand to open the front door, but his mother opens it first. She startles back at the sight of him, then shoulders past. “Get to town; see if you’re needed,” Nona Sayer instructs. Nona is as tall as all the Sayer men. To Rhun she passed her brown skin and coiling hair, and to her youngest the same plus a straighter nose. She was the first person from outside to settle in the valley in a generation, but since the bargain welcomed her, fast healing the bruises and starvation from her journey over the mountains, so did the people. She glares at Arthur, whom she took in when his mother ran off and his father refused him. “Same for you, boy.”

  “What’s wrong?” Arthur asks, nicer than he’d have asked any other living person, because Nona always treats him like one of her rough-and-tumble boys.

  Nona frowns at him, then at her actual son, measuring them up. “Rhos Priddy went into labor early, and Mairwen Grace claims a horse in the pasture is sick.”

  A thrill shoots through Arthur, but for Rhun the news sinks slow and firm into his guts. “Is it the devil? Did we do something wrong?” Rhun asks. How can I fix it, Mama? is the clear subtext.

  She shakes her head. “Not you, Rhun, that’s for certain. Go into town and keep folks calm. I’m going to Aderyn to help with the birthing, and we’ll send word when we can. Mairwen’s off to fetch Lord Vaughn.”

  “What about me?” Arthur says. “I’m not good at keeping anyone calm.”

  “Try harder,” Nona says, and that is that, for she swings her basket back into the crook of her elbow and hurries off to the north valley where the Grace house squats just a hill away from the Devil’s Forest.

  “Well, damn,” Rhun murmurs.

  “Try harder,” Arthur spits.

  Rhun lets the barley fall from his hand. It scatters over the green grass of the yard like a blight itself.

  • • •

  MAIRWEN GRACE HURRIES UP THE steepest path to Lord Vaughn’s manor, for it’s also the quickest.

  She knows the way, like everyone knows the way, though few have reason to visit. The Lords Vaughn often travel away from the valley, always returning for the Slaughter Moon, and sometimes for a regular winter, with trunks of books and expensive odds from the outside world. The current lord, Sy, is near thirty and unmarried. Mair has heard gossip he has a lover in the nearest city, but she is uninterested in a wedding that would force her out of her finery and into this primitive valley. Vaughn should find another, Mair thinks, or marry someone from Three Graces. The previous lord died just before John Upjohn’s run, and so Sy has presided only over that one, and Mairwen isn’t sure he has the experience to help if something is wrong with the bargain.

  Mairwen clutches at roots and jutting boulders to keep her balance. Her palms are raw now, her arms ache, and her breath is harsh and cold in her throat. Mair heaves up around an uprooted tree that leans over the steep path. She’s reached the level ground upon which the manor is built into the mountain—or from it, seemingly, for the gray stone bricks were carved from the cliff peak above them.

  Mair rubs her hands down her skirt to clean them and taps her heel to her toe to knock excess dirt from her boot soles. Making her way to the wide front door with its iron gate, Mair thinks of three years ago, that night she sat with John Upjohn while he sweated through nightmares and, before the sun rose, Sy Vaughn came calling.

  John was only eighteen, and she thirteen, gangly and passionate and thrilled to hold his head and arm while her mother worked to stanch the slowly bleeding wrist. They tied a tourniquet above his elbow and
whispered together a song of healing that was fast and encouraging, but no more than a charm. Aderyn cleaned and bound the stump, then bound the entire arm to John’s shivering chest, so the missing hand would’ve been higher than his pounding heart. All day they remained with him, dripping water and broth onto his lips, singing to him softly, drawing blessing triskeles on his arm. He slept the afternoon away, and into the night. Mairwen held him against her for hours, curled together on a nest of blankets near the wide hearthstone, staring as if she might see the impression of memories in his drawn skin, hear the devil’s laughter in his harsh breathing, feel the chill of fear and exhilaration in the echoes of pain cut into his wince. She was desperate to know what he’d seen—had he seen her father’s bones? Did he understand things about the forest she could not? Did he have answers for her? She longed to whisper her thoughts into his ear and wait for the response however it might come.

  His strong body shook with nightmares; he cried hot, sticky tears; he held on to her with his remaining hand, clutching her ribs or twining his fingers in her tangled hair. She’d dozed, finally, cheek on John’s shoulder. Her sleeping had been dreamless, a sleep of sweet exhaustion, but John’s had been terrible. His feet twitched as if he’d never stopped running, and he panted hard.

  The Grace door slammed opened and a dark figure strode in. John Upjohn woke with a cry, and Mairwen threw herself across him, between the saint and this new danger.

  The figure wore a trailing black cloak with the cowl pulled around his face—if he had a face—and he stood leaning sideways, one gloved hand pressed to the blackened end of a walking stick that shone in the moonlight like a knife.

  Mairwen said, “You will not take the rest of him, too, devil!”

  Silence swept through the house, and the silvery moonlight cast everything gray but for the blood seeping through the bandage of John Upjohn’s raw wrist.

  The figure pushed back his cowl to reveal a square, pale face and curling brown hair. He said, “It is only Sy Vaughn, brave girl.”

  She relaxed slightly, but kept herself before John like a guardian spirit. “You can’t have him either,” she said.

  And Sy Vaughn smiled, amusement tucked into the corners. He studied Mairwen Grace, thirteen and weedy and small, bent around the injured saint, staring at him with her mother’s brown eyes. He stepped nearer, then crouched beside her. He tugged off his glove to touch her freckled cheek with a bare finger, and lowered his eyes to the saint.

  John Upjohn lifted his chin with the last thread of his courage and said, “I survived.”

  “So you did, John. And I want you to know: My family has offered money to all the survivors, if you wish to leave the valley, if you find it too rough surviving still, this near the forest.”

  Mairwen knew this. She’d heard it from her mother, and knew all four survivors in the past two hundred years had taken the offer and left Three Graces forever, as if once a boy ran through the Devil’s Forest, he could not be contained by the valley.

  “No. You can’t leave,” she whispered.

  And John agreed. “I’d drag the forest with me wherever I went. I feel it . . . too strongly.”

  “Here,” Aderyn Grace said gently from her bedroom door, “you might never be happy. The memories, the nightmares . . .”

  “I know,” John said.

  “That’s not true.” Mair turned and put her hands on his face. “There are cures for nightmares, and you’re the best, John.”

  “I was.”

  Mair leaned up onto her knees. “You’re the saint, always and forever. My father . . .” She could say no more, but John Upjohn seemed to understand.

  “I’ll try,” he promised wearily, “for the daughter of Carey Morgan.”

  “None have survived and stayed,” the lord said, studying not John, but Mairwen. She studied him back, staring at his face, warm and sunny even in these shadows.

  “Please,” she said, “let him stay.”

  With no word, the lord stood and went to Aderyn. Vaughn touched the back of Aderyn’s hand. “Keep him alive, then, Grace witch,” he said, and swept out.

  Mairwen did not sleep again that night, though her mother refused to acknowledge anything odd had occurred, and John curled back again into the blanket nest, head tucked into Mairwen’s warm embrace.

  She can’t help but think of it now, as she drags at the iron gate of the manor with all her weight, because it’s three years since the last Slaughter Moon and the bargain is failing. The only change she knows of is John Upjohn both surviving and staying.

  At her urging. At her plea.

  And Rhun Sayer might pay the price of it, too soon.

  The iron squeals open and she pounds on the cold wooden door with her fist. “Lord Vaughn!” she yells. “Are you here? You’re needed! My mother, Aderyn Grace, sent me!”

  Her words echo around the stone archway. Mair waits, pressing her back to the door. The manor shelters her from wind, and she can see the southern edges of the sunset against the mountain slope, and far beyond it, the next mountain all green dark shadow and lightning-strike of white peak. Beyond that, she imagines another peak and another, in a long string of mountain range, or if she sends her thoughts even farther, the plains of farmland they’re told lead to a vast river and the first of the great cities. Sometimes in the spring, a cart and horse makes its way along the narrow passages through these mountains to their valley, led by a trader who knows Lord Vaughn’s name, and they tell stories of the cities and kings and vast church government. Less often, a person stumbles into Three Graces to stay, like Rhun’s mother. Refugees or orphans or folk seeking they’re never sure exactly what, until they land here. Even more rarely a person leaves, never to return.

  Mairwen’s mother says someday Arthur Couch will leave, because he burns too hot for Three Graces. But Mair suspects Arthur burns too hot for all the world. She can imagine him, though, far away from here, past those large mountains and surrounded by others to fight.

  The thought of him gone sours her tongue.

  It strikes her how quiet it is here at the lord’s manor: unlike every step of the valley, where you can hear birdsong or the clang of Braith Bowen’s hammer and anvil or complaining sheep at all times. Even at night, the wind seems to chitter and chat.

  But here it’s silent.

  Perhaps Vaughn has not come home, because it’s not supposed to be a saint year. Perhaps he reclines in an elegant city house, with oranges and fancy wine, with that lover of his, reading a book and not thinking at all that he’s needed here four years early. But no—she saw smoke lift off his chimney this afternoon.

  Against the small of her back, the handle twitches as someone on the other side unlocks it.

  Whirling, she’s ready when the door pushes out, and there stands the lord in elegant black with his face clear toward the sun. It catches his miscolored eyes, making them clear as glass.

  Vaughn slides away to allow Mairwen entrance to the small foyer. She does, and he quickly shuts them into darkness. The only light comes from the hallway to her left, just a flicker of fire.

  “Lord Vaughn,” she says, offering an awkward curtsy.

  “Mairwen Grace,” he says, smooth and relaxed. “Welcome to my home.”

  He sweeps past her and leads her toward the firelight.

  The hallway is broad enough for two abreast and built with no windows and the candle alcoves are empty. Some tapestries warm the walls, dark, bold floral patterns woven into them. Vaughn takes her past two closed doors and then down three shallow stairs into a warm room with wooden rafters and limewash to brighten the walls. The shutters on two tall windows are drawn, but a small fire burns in the great wide hearth she remembers from her visits with Aderyn. A wingback chair rests near the fire, surrounded by stacks of books, and she spies a small writing desk and an entire shelf of ink bottles and pens.

  “Sit if you will,” he instructs, pointing at a three-legged stool with a velvety cushion, then at a small sofa with gilded
legs shaped like talons. She perches on the stool with her hands on her knees, glad not to feel uncomfortable or strange in his lovely room.

  Vaughn sits in his wingback chair and stares at her. Still handsome, despite the oddness of his eyes: one dark brown and one gray. His long fingers curl around the green arms of the chair, adorned by only one ring: a silver band gripping three black gemstones.

  She draws a breath and says, “There’s a sick horse in the field and Rhos Priddy went into early labor. My mother sent me to fetch you, for it seems there’s something wrong with the bargain.”

  He nods, resting back so his face half disappears in the shadow thrown by the wing of the chair. The fire crackles, and Mair hears her pulse suddenly in her ears, but nothing else.

  “You aren’t surprised! Did you know? Is that why you returned this year?”

  “I come home nearly every year. It is difficult to stay away, knowing outside the valley anything might happen to me and I will not be healed.”

  “Oh.” Mairwen tries to calm down. She nearly asks what it’s like, outside, but that is what Arthur would ask. If she truly wished to know, she’d have had answers from Nona Sayer years ago. Mairwen only cares what is deeper inside the valley.

  Vaughn sighs. He said, “But I am not surprised. Not entirely.”

  Excitement pushes Mair to lean forward. “Why?”

  “Because of John.”

  “He met the rules of the bargain.”

  “That we know of. No saint has done as he did, surviving but leaving a piece of himself in the forest.”

  “I can go into the forest, sir, and find what’s gone wrong.”

  The lord’s eyebrows lift and he smiles, which brings a sharpness to his cheeks and reminds Mairwen of someone, though she cannot think who.

  “I’m not afraid,” she says. Then puts fists upon her knees. “No, I am, but not more afraid than I am courageous enough to do it. And willing.”

  Vaughn reaches for the nearest pile of books without looking away from Mairwen and flips open the top book to reveal a hollow cutout. Nestled inside is a small curved pipe. The lord lifts it out and taps the mouthpiece to his lower lip, but doesn’t move to fill or light it. “Being a witch does not mean you would be welcomed instead of torn to pieces within the first hour.”