Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 4

  Mairwen says, “My father was Carey Morgan, the saint seventeen years ago. That will protect me.”

  His mouth opens and the tapping pipe stills. “From the devil?”

  “I am not in danger of losing my heart like the first Grace,” she lies.

  “My God, you are something,” Vaughn says eagerly.

  Mairwen lifts her chin, feeling similarly eager. “I am the daughter of a saint and the Grace witch. Who better to discover what’s gone wrong than me? What good is it to have been born as I am if not for this?”

  “No,” Vaughn says.

  “Sir!” Mairwen leaps to her feet.

  “You would risk breaking the bargain further, or entirely? Then what? Rhos Priddy’s baby dies, and maybe Rhos, too—afterward famine and plague for all?”

  “But . . .” She trails off, heart pounding, because if she can do nothing, then it will all fall upon the saint’s shoulders.

  “Wait with the town.” Vaughn slowly stands. He uses his pipe to touch her chest, just over her heart. “Return to your mother, Mairwen Grace, and tell her, and all of Three Graces, we must wait for morning before acting. If something is wrong with the bargain, surely there will be blood on the branches at dawn and we will have a Slaughter Moon early. Please, Mairwen.”

  She wants to say no, to swear instead that she’ll go into the forest tonight, because she needs to do it and always has needed to. Because an early Slaughter Moon means Rhun will run now instead of years from now, and she wasted all this time playing and stalling.

  But in this dark room, with the lord’s eyes so near to her own, and smelling tobacco smoke tinged with something bitter, she can’t. Her tongue freezes, and her fingers hide themselves in the folds of her skirt, because she remembers saying the same to Lord Vaughn, to keep John Upjohn. Please. She had a hold on him then, and now in return, he holds her, too.

  • • •

  ARTHUR’S VERSION OF TRYING HARDER is to lean against the outer wall of the church, where it faces the town square, and carefully keep from glaring.

  The square of Three Graces was built nearly two hundred years ago, before the first saint went into the forest: Instead of a central well, a stone fire pit of gray and white bricks spirals like a summer storm in a circle twenty paces across. The rest of the open space is grassy and strewn with hay, stretching from the stone church at the north to the Royal Barrel in the south, with the oldest pale stone houses butting their front doors right up to the edge. Those doors are painted bright colors, no two the same, and the window shutters to match. Wooden charms and horsehair blessings hang upon lintels welcoming saints to the square, and the bonfire circle is often chalked with similar charms and prayers. Arthur stares at one, a spiky white triangle crossed with the word “hail.” It’s Mairwen’s writing.

  His eyes drift up and up the line of their mountain, to the winking red windows of Sy Vaughn’s manor. What is she doing up there? Did she go to fetch the lord? Surely he’s not home.

  Rhun laughs a few paces away, clapping Darro Parry’s shoulder. The old man nods, frown fading.

  When Arthur and Rhun arrived an hour ago, only a few folks wandered in the square, caught by furtive glances and the tension of the wind on their way home from the fields, or before ducking into the Royal Barrel for a pint. There were other patches of blight discovered, and a rumor about Rhos Priddy and her early baby. Arthur scowled and said, “At least we know how to fix it,” but Rhun had yet to acknowledge anything was broken. He moved among the growing crowd, assuring and telling jokes, being himself, and in his wake the tension eased like a loosening braid.

  At least half the town is crushed into the square by the time the sun is set. Arthur has kept his eyes on the brightening moon, nearly full. It appeared before dusk, hazy and pale against the sheer blue evening; it now glows with promise. Two nights to come is the fullest moon. Will it be a Slaughter Moon?

  That is the question everyone asks with covert glances and fidgeting hands.

  As he watches the people, Arthur slowly realizes what is putting him on edge—at least, more on edge than is usual.

  Men have clustered around men and women around women.

  And here Arthur leans alone.

  In Three Graces everyone sows the fields, everyone harvests, but beyond that, most work is divided into men’s work and women’s. Men hunt. Women sew. Men prepare meat and repair thatching. Women care for homes, gardens, and families. Men make what needs to be made, from beer and barrels to wheels and shoes. There are exceptions: Braith Bowen learned his smithing from his mother and grandmother, and Brian Dee and Ifan Ellsworth compete for the best herb garden. In the evenings there are usually more men gossiping in the pub and more women and girls laughing and sharing tips around private cottage fires. Nobody knows as well as Arthur that there are things for men and things for women. But it’s not usually so obvious as it is tonight. When the town gathers here for marriages or memorials, for celebrating the end of harvest or first planting, when Three Graces comes together for joy, all mingle. Men and women, boys and girls, woven together as they eat and tease one another, as they cheer on the celebration or flirt.

  Arthur feels a sneer curl his mouth and doesn’t put it away. It may well be that men and boys should be drawn naturally to some things and women to others, but what is not natural is the way this fear tonight, the way this tension of wondering if someone will die, if someone will run early into the Devil’s Forest, puts everyone into a very strict location that is either with men, or with women. Nothing in between.

  On a night like this, a person can only be one thing or the other, no matter how it compromises the truth to choose a side.

  He should join the men. But he still remembers the laughter ten years ago, gentle though it may have been, when he’d volunteered to run. Seven years old and furious and frightened, and the men had laughed.

  They didn’t laugh at him anymore, but they didn’t like him much, either.

  “Your face will stick that way,” Mairwen says, a perennial comment.

  Startled, Arthur clenches his jaw, then smoothly turns to her. He won’t give her the satisfaction of having surprised him. “What does Vaughn say?”

  She lifts her chin and, instead of answering him alone, marches into the center of the square. Lifting her hands, she calls out, “Everyone!”

  “Mair,” Rhun says, waving in relief. Everyone looks to her, making space where she stands so more can see, as there is nothing for her to stand on.

  “Vaughn says we wait for the morning,” Mairwen yells. “Either all this illness will pass as always, or blood will appear on the Bone Tree, and we will have our Slaughter Moon in two nights.”

  She makes to leave, having said what she came to say, and Arthur smiles tightly at her naïveté when Rhun catches her elbow and murmurs something clearly remonstrative. Mair’s lips curdle into a frown and she shrugs.

  “I don’t know,” she says belligerently. But she looks around.

  You’re supposed to be the Grace witch, Arthur thinks, shaking his head. He laughs a little to himself, meanly, and joins them.

  “What?” she asks.

  Arthur turns his back to the crowd so none see him suggest, “Tell the story, Mair.”

  It’s how the Slaughter Moon rituals begin, always. The Grace witch recounts the tale. It should calm the crowd to give them familiarity to cling to. Tradition.

  Mair’s eyes widen in acceptance and she calls out, “All three sisters were named Grace!”

  Rhun appears with a bench, Haf Lewis carrying the other end of it. The two lift her up. She steadies herself with a hand on Rhun’s shoulder, though it should be Arthur’s—he’s the taller boy.

  Mairwen says again, “All three sisters were named Grace.

  “One after the other,” she tells the town, “the daughters were born to a desperate mother, and named Grace by their terrible father, only to be swaddled out of the cottage under the pretense of sudden death. They were smuggled thirty miles away to be
raised by their widowed aunt and never seen by their father. For seventeen years the three girls lived with their aunt in peace: The eldest Grace was tall and lovely, preferring her garden to the world; the middle Grace was strong and enjoyed running and climbing most of all; the youngest Grace was never satisfied, for she had a curious nature. When she was fifteen, the youngest wandered far from home, searching for peace. But it was this valley she discovered instead. Secure on all sides by grand mountains, home to wild ponies and several happy goats, with a small creek flowing through and a deep forest, the youngest Grace was amazed no people lived there yet. She felt as though her heart belonged in the dark forest and that inside it she would discover great secrets and the answers her heart desired. But in her travels she’d grown wise enough to know she needed her family to keep her grounded. And so the youngest Grace returned for her aunt and sisters. She persuaded them with a handful of never-dying flowers from the edge of the forest and a branch that would not break. The three Graces came to the valley and made a home.

  “Others soon joined them, as if the sisters’ loving presence had opened doors through the mountains, and settlers were beckoned through, from all corners of the world, all kinds and looks of folk who sought safety or peace or merely to satisfy their curiosity. The town grew in size, pressing against the walls of the valley, and especially the dark woods to the north. When her roots had grown deep into the village, the youngest Grace ventured into the forest, drawn by the shifting shadows and a dream she frequently had, wherein she stood in a grove of yellow spring flowers, beside an ancient white tree, and smiled as though she had never been so happy.

  “She explored the forest and met the devil who resided there: She saw his form to be beautiful, as mysterious as the night, as elegant as reaching oak trees, and dangerous enough to sink through her heart. The youngest Grace fell in love with him. She brought her sisters to the edge and said, ‘Here is an old god of the forest. I love him and I will make him my husband.’

  “But her sisters screamed, for they saw a horned devil with black eyes and claws, whose fine legs were covered with rough fur and whose feet were cloven. They saw a monster, not the god their sister loved.

  “Her sisters tried to convince her to stay with them, or to flee the valley again, because this devil could not be trusted. But the youngest Grace knew the forest and understood the land, and so, too, did she believe her devil was a piece of the forest, dangerous only as the world is dangerous, monstrous only as is the lion or crow or any human. She said, ‘Sisters, I love him, and if you love me, you will trust me. He knows magic, and has taught it to me. I will teach it, in turn, to you. We will make our valley strong and perfect, so that no harm touches any of our neighbors or friends.’

  “ ‘Impossible,’ her sisters replied. ‘There is no magic so strong.’

  “And then the devil spoke, in a voice like summer and birdsong, thick around his sharp teeth, ‘Oh, but there is. It is the magic of life and death, hearts and heart-roots, stars and decay. We will bind ourselves together, your sister and I, and ever after Three Graces will be our children, and blessed. For all of time your fields will bear fruit, your mountain abound with meat, the rains be gentle, and no plague come upon you.’ The devil smiled and continued. ‘But when the Slaughter Moon rises, you will send the best of your sons to my forest. Willing he must come, and ready to fight. My demons and spirits will harry and torment him; they will hunt him and try to feast upon his bones. Either this son will fall, never to be seen again in this world or the next, mine for all time, or if he proves himself brave and strong enough to survive until dawn, he shall return to his home and family, to live long with the bounty of his sacrifice.’ ”

  Mairwen stops.

  She can’t seem to help herself: She glances straight at Rhun Sayer. But Rhun’s eyes watch the crowd, earnest and willing them to listen.

  It’s Arthur who meets her gaze.

  Arthur thought he was a little girl when he heard this story first, and with the other little girls played out the tale again and again. He’d liked being the middle sister, the one with the ax. Mairwen, when she played at all, insisted on playing the devil. They’d used the story to scare themselves: Haf as the youngest Grace would lean toward the edge of the forest, so that Mair the devil could pretend to appear out of it. Haf always screamed, and Mair insisted they hold hands, and kiss, and that was the part Haf didn’t mind, swooning over herself as if wildly in love with Mair the devil.

  He can’t hear the story now without remembering the exact moment he’d been forced to realize he wasn’t a sister; he wasn’t one of the girls. He’d liked who he was. He’d fit in and had friends, worn skirts and been happy. Then all of that was taken away.

  It makes him feel like a monster, like the devil, to miss being a girl.

  The witch tears her gaze off Arthur and finishes. “The sisters hesitated, but the youngest smiled so brightly they finally agreed, for it was a miraculous promise. The youngest Grace and the devil married, striking the bargain together. The youngest Grace went inside the forest and never returned, her heart affixed to the center, bleeding so the Bone Tree bled, binding every generation of folk in Three Graces to note the rising of the Slaughter Moon and send the best of our sons to face the Devil’s Forest.”

  Though the story is fraught and bloody, as it ends, the entire town seems to sigh in relief. This they know. This they understand. The rules and origin.

  At least, Arthur thinks as he holds out his hand to help Mairwen down, they believe they understand. Not many in Three Graces have ever had their world shifted under their feet like this. But Arthur has. Twice.

  To his surprise, Mair touches his hand briefly to hop down from the bench. Arthur says for her alone, “You won’t sleep tonight. Neither will I. I’ll be stalking that moon, and the blood on the Bone Tree.”

  It’s an invitation, but Mairwen purses her lips. “I’ll be doing everything I can tonight to keep Rhos Priddy and her baby alive, Arthur Couch.”

  With that, she swirls away and dashes off, leaving Arthur with a feeling of censure, as if she meant to put him in his place.

  The problem is Arthur has never had a place in Three Graces. Not since he was seven years old.

  Just like sickness and blight, like torrential rain and sudden death, Arthur does not belong.

  He shudders like a flickering candle flame, wishing he knew where to stand, or how to make himself into an inferno.

  For most of his seventeen years, Rhun Sayer has slept soundly, waking with the sun or just before it along with his brother and cousins and parents, joined them all in a raucous breakfast before they parted ways to hunt or plant or harvest, to chop wood or run with the dogs. As the oldest of his brothers and with his closest cousin Brac married now, and Arthur in the barn loft, Rhun sleeps alone in a narrow room just off the kitchen. It’s always warm from the rear wall of the hearth, and only a trunk of cast-off clothes and a small bed fits, though he’s hammered nails into the wall from which to hang scarves and boots laced together and a small basket for his few prized possessions. But after standing restless in Three Graces last night with the villagers after Mairwen left, wishing he could lean on Arthur, and waiting to hear that Rhos’s babe was finally born, a little girl, but weak and refusing to cry . . . after such tidings, Rhun did not sleep well at all.

  He wakes before dawn, before his mother or father stirs up the fire, and can’t relax. So he pulls on boots and trousers and jerkin, only half tucks in his shirt, grabs his bow and quiver, and slips quietly out of the house. Instead of darting up the mountain to hunt, he turns on the path toward town. A starry sky bathes Three Graces in calm silver light, and the wind is still.

  Rhun doesn’t allow himself to glance toward the Devil’s Forest. Even in this light, if there’s blood on the Bone Tree he’ll see it. And if there’s blood, there will be a sacrifice. Rhun will run; he’ll do it. He’s always known his sainthood would come.

  But he expected more time.

bsp; He walks slowly toward the whitewashed cottages and thatched roofs gray in the predawn, letting his chest tighten as it’s wished to ever since he discovered the blighted barley. Something like pain wraps his ribs, and he feels light-headed as he goes quietly past the sleeping bakery and the pub into the center of town. He walks along the spiral of chalked blessings.

  Aderyn Grace herself—and more often lately her daughter—does the chalking on Sundays as part of what’s become the weekly ritual for town since the last circuit priest abandoned them when they refused to abandon their devil, during Rhun’s grandfather’s boyhood. Now every Sunday the women bake bread to be shared in the church, and the men bring a special brew of wine from casks hidden from the sun in the dugout of the Royal Barrel. Together they sing old prayer songs while the witches do the chalking, while children play and weave charms from grass and flowers. It’s an informal spirituality the townsfolk have built together, managing to perform their own marriages and baptisms and final rites with an eye and prayer toward God, hoping he hasn’t renounced them for the pagan practice of the Slaughter Moon.

  Rhun never worries, because his grandmother told him God loves and is love, and had been willing to sacrifice a son to the world because of love. Was that not the very same heart of the bargain? She said, God is with us every time we send a boy into that forest, because we do it for love. And that boy, our saint, becomes a piece of God.

  It makes him smile as he crosses the town center, thinking of her. She died a few years ago, and the funeral had been here, and it had been merry. Gatherings in Three Graces tended toward merry, even wakes and funerals, for nobody is taken before their time. Until now. It is not Rhun’s time, and yet . . .

  The weight of it hangs on his shoulders.

  His sigh puffs in the air, though it shouldn’t be cold enough. Rhun turns a slow circle, looking at the buildings, and remembers dancing at his cousin Brac’s wedding last spring, everyone laughing and happy. Remembers the last night ten years ago, before his cousin Baeddan went into the forest, and Baeddan was glorious. It is so good here!