Settings
Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 5


  The pain in Rhun’s chest, he tells himself, is love.

  He loves Three Graces, the people and the land, and he’ll run early to keep them safe.

  A few dim stars wink directly above him as those in the east are defeated by the dawn, and Rhun knows he can’t put it off: He turns his face toward the Devil’s Forest and takes the first step just as a singsong wail slithers out of the Bowen house. Rhun immediately alters course.

  The chimney of the smithy smokes thinly, and he hears no rush of bellows or hammering yet. But through the open shutters of the house trails little Genny’s cry, and he goes through the rear gate and into the house without knocking. Braith stands over his two-year-old daughter with his mouth open, eyes pinched, and his large sooty hands out like tree branches.

  “All right, Braith?” Rhun asks.

  “My wife is . . . sick.” The mid-aged smith drops his hands to his sides. “Head just aching, she says, and I’d just fired up the . . .”

  “Oh no,” Rhun says, but puts on a smile as he bends to Genny. The little girl is half out of her smock, with the armhole knotted about her braid. Tears stick to her lashes and pink cheeks, and dark purple jam paints her mouth in wide strokes. “Come on, sunlight,” Rhun murmurs. “Let’s get ready for the day.”

  Genny clings with sticky hands to Rhun’s trousers.

  “You take care of Liza,” Rhun says. “I’ll keep Genny with me for the morning.”

  Braith Bowen stares a moment at Rhun and his only daughter, lines cutting at his mouth. He unties his heavy smith’s apron and keeps on watching as Rhun calmly plucks Genny off the dusty floor and puts her on the table, as he washes the child and sings a song about noses and eyes and mouths and keeping them clean for the saints to kiss. He kisses Genny’s nose and eyes and mouth after each rhyme, with a delicate smack. Then he tickles her knees and ribs, wiggling the smock into its proper place.

  Rhun glances at the tired face of the smith. “We’ll be all right, Braith. It’ll be good for me, too, to have Genny to look after until . . .”

  “Until we know,” Braith says.

  Rhun nods, eyes darting toward the north window and the lightening sky.

  Braith touches his daughter’s hair, then Rhun’s shoulder, and disappears through the door toward the back bedroom of his cottage.

  Rhun picks up his song again, changing it to one of the harvest tunes. He teases the child that he’ll slice off her hair with a scythe if it doesn’t get combed once a week, slice like the barley, slice like the wheat, slice like the butcher cutting his meat. And Rhun chops his teeth lightly at Genny’s chubby fingers. He gets her hair unknotted and braided in a rope, then hefts the babe onto his hip and takes her outside, where the square remains empty, but he can see more smoke lifting out of the chimneys as the folk get up and started for the day. Are others sick? Have the goats dried up or milk gone sour? What new pieces of the bargain have fallen apart today?

  The two-year-old kicks, knocking her heels on Rhun’s thigh. “Let’s walk out to the pasture, shall we?” he says, snuggling her close. “See the horses?”

  “Horses!” she repeats.

  As he carries her out of town, he sings again, about walking and trotting and galloping a pony, varying his own gait according to the song, until Genny laughs so bright the pain around Rhun’s chest lifts away just enough.

  • • •

  DAWN IS NOT YET MORE than a line of silver in the eastern sky when Mairwen arrives again at the pasture hill nearest the Devil’s Forest. As expected, she hardly slept the night before, taking turns with Nona Sayer to care for Rhos and the tiny babe. They swaddled the girl and warmed her, massaged her and kept constant eye that she breathed, using what little knowledge Nona remembered from keeping puppy runts alive as a girl. Water boiled over the fire all night while Aderyn worked with Rhos to get her milk flowing, though by the time Rhos finally wept herself to sleep there’d been no success. Finally, Aderyn sent Mair up to her loft, but she’d only dozed, too focused on the tiny gasping breath of the baby to sleep, wishing she’d defied Lord Vaughn and her mother to go into the forest. Nona Sayer confided that without the bargain, Rhos’s baby would certainly die.

  Finally Mairwen got up, got dressed, and creaked down the ladder to the kitchen. She stirred up the fire so it would warm the room before the other women woke, then took a boiled egg from the basket, and her mother’s old leather coat from the peg beside the door.

  She crunches through the dying grass to the horse pasture, peeling her egg as she goes and scattering the shell behind, whispering tiny blessings to the grass. Stars sparkle crisply in the chilled air, and no clouds mar the diamond sky. To her right, the far horizon bends silver where in less than an hour the sun will rise. By the time she reaches the stone wall around the pasture, she’s finished her egg, and pauses to swipe a handful of wild dill to chew.

  The horses huddle in the valley, opposite the forest slope. Two mares pop their long faces up to snicker at Mairwen. She shushes them, searching for the gray who was sick yesterday; he kneels alone, head low.

  As she reaches the crest of the hill to gaze down at the woods, it surprises her to realize she’s not the earliest riser. Someone stands below her, at the very edge of the Devil’s Forest, near the ugly tree the children call the Witch’s Hand. Its lightning-scarred branches crawl up against the midnight green of the forest itself, streaked with white ash and decorated with a number of red blessings tied there by brave—or foolish—children. They dare each other to do it: to ready a charm against the devil and walk up to the wrecked tree and stand there long enough to tie up their blessing. No matter what they spy creeping in the deep shadows of the forest, no matter what shrieks they hear or the chill of demon breath trickling down their spines.

  They’d all been eight when Dar Priddy challenged Rhun to hang a blessing, and Mair heard from Haf that the boys were sending someone out. Haf had tittered how brave it was to make such a gift, and the Parry sisters giggled nervously that it was always boys doing it; wouldn’t it be grand for one of their own to be so brave? Mairwen, just to be contrary, said it was meaningless courage because nothing came of those blessings, so why not save bravery for an act that mattered? Bryn Parry sniffed and told her sister obviously Mair was just afraid and using her awful logic to make her fear sound sensible.

  Of course, Mairwen was not afraid of the forest, and so it was easy to walk up to the Witch’s Hand at the same time as Rhun Sayer and convince him there was no good cause to leave a blessing.

  When she came up behind him that dawn, Rhun had been trembling and tense. At her footsteps he whirled around, ax in one hand and limp red ribbon in the other. “Mairwen Grace!” he squeaked, backing up to knock into the trunk of the tree. Its branches rattled overhead, and Mair pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth, looking wide-eyed at Rhun, who was no taller than her then, but only a boy with big hair and a crooked nose too large for his face. She put her fists on her hips and said, “Better to give that blessing to me than to a cursed tree like this, Rhun Sayer!”

  His mouth fell open and he laughed.

  Mairwen laughed, too.

  She’d never paid him much attention before, though she supposed she’d known him all her life. The cadence of his laughter had warmed her from the inside out.

  But the noise of it carried well into the Devil’s Forest, and a laugh echoed back at them, high and wicked enough to prick.

  They leaped together, grasping hands, and ran up the long hill to the grazing horses, where their peers waited, jeering and wide-eyed, but shaking too, for they’d heard Rhun’s laugh and the mirror of it from the forest.

  The girls held out their arms to welcome Mairwen back, but skinny Arthur Couch had insisted, “It doesn’t count if you don’t tie the blessing on,” holding his hand out for the ribbon. “I’ll do it. Give it to me.”

  But Rhun tied his ribbon into the thicket of Mairwen’s hair instead.

  Now the young man standing before the Witch’s Hand tak
es a low-hanging blessing in his fingers, gently tugging. But he doesn’t untie it, only strokes it, and then lets his hand drop.

  Arthur.

  Mair feels a rush, both glad and annoyed to see him. It’s a common blend of reactions to Arthur Couch. He’s brash and bold, always pushing at her the way she pushes at the forest. Like a promise, and one she wants to keep. But because of Rhun, Mair refuses to love him.

  She walks down the hill slowly but not too quietly. As if he knows it will be her, Arthur doesn’t turn until she’s just beside his shoulder. They look into the forest, caught in darkness before the sun rises. The shadows wait, still and black. A cold wind gusts out, slinking through the trees without touching them, without moving branches or leaves. Only the shadows shiver, rippling and expanding, reaching.

  Glints of light draw Mairwen’s eyes to the forest floor, to the shuffle of fallen leaves. Something moves beyond the thick black trunks, a weight of darkness. She steps toward it, fully into the shadow of the forest.

  Arthur grabs her elbow. “What’s wrong with you?” he asks.

  A breeze shakes the naked branches nearest them. We are so hungry, the breath of the forest whispers.

  Arthur makes a noise like a groan trapped in his chest and drags Mairwen several paces back. “Would you make it worse?” he snaps. “By going inside after some flitting shadow?”

  Mair’s chest aches with cold. She tries to fire herself up by saying, “Just because you’re afraid to step inside, not all of us are.”

  His nostrils flare. “I am not afraid of the forest, but for my friend who’ll be sent into it.”

  “Rhun won’t die,” she says, heart aching. Then she thinks of the saints who survive and leave, never returning to the valley because of all the horrible memories. So it’s said. And John Upjohn, the only to remain, who is frail and haunted. Mairwen can’t imagine Rhun so broken he begs the Grace witches to let him sleep at their hearth, shaking from nightmares. She has to imagine he’s stronger, better—the best. He can survive and thrive. She has to believe it, even knowing every mother and lover and friend must think the same of their saint. What else can she do? What else will she be allowed to do?

  “I would run for him,” Arthur insists.

  “For yourself,” she whispers back.

  “For all of us.”

  Mairwen shakes her head, knowing the lie. Arthur doesn’t care about saving the people of Three Graces, only proving to them that he can. Be the saint to erase the little girl who dogs him in his own memory worse than in the memory of the town.

  “Don’t try to be what you’re not, Arthur,” she says, knowing he’ll take it badly.

  Arthur digs his hands into his choppy pale hair, pulling hard. His elbows jut out at the lightening sky. But he says nothing. Mair clenches her teeth and turns away from him. She doesn’t understand Arthur’s anger, except that it always makes her angry too. Rhun says the two of them should be better friends. You’re both so pointy and strange and beautiful, my favorite people in the world. But she won’t forgive Arthur.

  “Mairwen,” he hisses, and she hears him unsheathe one of his knives.

  Turning, she follows Arthur’s gaze into the forest.

  A deer picks its careful way over deadfall, sides heaving. Tiny antlers fork off its skull, catching the first hints of dawn light.

  Blood drips from its mouth, from unnaturally sharp teeth cutting out at terrible angles through its face. Vines wrap its delicate legs, and when it takes one more careful step, Mair can see talons—not tiny hooves.

  It raises its head and looks straight at her with eyes the purple of crystal.

  She steps forward, awed and excited.

  The creature bellows, a low bleat of fury and pain, and charges.

  Arthur leaps between it and Mairwen with no hesitation, knife out. He dodges its teeth and jams his long knife straight into its neck, hilt deep. The creature screams and bucks, clawing at Arthur as he twists. He hits the grass and rolls, coming up with a kick to its rear legs.

  Mairwen has nothing but her body. She punches at it, connecting with the downy cheek, and when it whips its head furiously, nearly catching her with an antler, she scurries back, tripping up the hill. Arthur cuts again and again at its flank with his second knife.

  The creature stumbles and falls onto its knees, howling. Arthur grabs his first knife and saws it free. There’s sudden silence. It’s dead.

  Trembling, Mair starts forward. She grasps at Arthur’s arm to help him to his feet. Together they stare down at the creature. Its antlers look more like winter branches, not bone, and its claws are black. Tiny purple violas bloom from its wounds and vines twist around its legs and torso—vines bursting from its own flesh, like ribs come to life to choke it.

  Arthur wipes blood from his forehead. He’s hurt, but not badly. A shallow cut at his hairline, and Mairwen finds a slash in his jerkin that didn’t reach flesh. His right forearm is bright red with blood. Purple blood from the deer splatters across his belly and neck and the right side of his face.

  “We have to get rid of this,” Arthur says.

  “What, why?” Mair would prefer to study the body, to take its wooden antlers and investigate what its bones are made of. Nothing has come out of the forest before, that she knows. The birds never fly free, only scream in their tiny human voices. The scaly mice never scurry even an inch past the border, and no snakes emerge to find sun.

  Arthur whispers the worst curse he can think of and shakes his head. “There was talk last night that John Upjohn did something wrong, that if the bargain is broken, it’s because of him.”

  “He is a saint!”

  “If people see this monster, they’ll be even more afraid.”

  Mairwen looks at Arthur’s burning pale eyes. “This isn’t John’s fault.”

  “But something is very wrong. This is unnatural, even for the Devil’s Forest.”

  “Poor thing,” she says, eyes dropping back to the malformed body of flesh and vines. Arthur is right: The bargain is broken, or so weakened it cannot even bind the monsters inside. “Let’s roll it back across the threshold.”

  Arthur bends and grabs the neck and shoulders, grimacing at the torn mouth. Mair picks up the back end by the ankles, lifting and dragging.

  It’s not nearly as heavy as it should be. Like its insides have dried out or been eaten away.

  They manage to heave it to the edge of the forest, where the rising sun still can’t penetrate. On count of three they roll it fully into the shadows, then stand there panting, staring at its bulk, just hidden in the thick, rotting deadfall, less than a foot from the light.

  A shuffle of tall pasture grass behind them warns them somebody’s coming. Mair darts up the hill in time to see Rhun easily hop over the stone wall even with what appears to be little Genny Bowen in his arms. All Mair’s urgency falls away at the sight of him. Rhun Sayer with a baby girl. She thinks of her father, Carey Morgan, the saint who went into the forest not knowing he had a daughter on the way. Rhun would be a wonderful father.

  Mair makes some noise of sorrow as Arthur joins her. “Damn,” he whispers, sad and furious and thinking the same thoughts as Mairwen.

  But Rhun smiles at them, a boyish, wide smile, and lifts Genny’s chubby hand to wave.

  “Go to the creek and wash off your face,” Mairwen says.

  “He, at least, should know.”

  She hesitates, then nods and trudges up toward Rhun, who says, “Morning.” As if compelled by unseen forces, he steps close. Even with Genny between them, he kisses her.

  It’s such a welcome thing to Mairwen, who feels her heart quiet, her bones stop their anxious vibrations, as always when Rhun kisses her. She becomes rooted to the spot, like a trembling willow tree. Genny puts a warm hand on Mairwen’s cheek.

  “Kissing where the devil can see?” Arthur calls with poison in his tone.

  They part, though Rhun remains intimately near. She slides Arthur a glare just as Rhun asks, “What happened??
?? with horror building in his tone. His brown cheeks are rough with a spotty young beard, his lips tight with strain.

  “Hello, Genny,” Mairwen says calmly, taking the baby.

  “Arthur?” Rhun eyes the blood on Arthur’s face.

  “Mama is sick,” the little girl tells Mairwen.

  “Then it’s good,” Arthur says, pointing his hand north, “there’s blood on the Bone Tree.”

  They all look, and there, rising from the deepest center of the forest, the Bone Tree spreads its barren branches and a scatter of red buds catch the sunrise like a scream.

  “So,” Rhun says, voice thick, and he can say no more.

  Dread hardens inside Mairwen, like she swallowed old yellow bones.

  It’s Arthur who puts his hand flat and solidly on Rhun’s shoulder, scowling at the bloody flowers. “Tomorrow night, then,” he says.

  • • •

  BY THE TIME THE FIRST of the town arrives, Arthur and Rhun have been to the creek and back, the former to wash and relate the brief morning’s adventure to the latter. Mairwen holds Genny, both of them all awkward elbows, and she sings softly to the little girl. It’s a song about the Bone Tree, about three little squirrels who try to make a nest in its branches and one by one grow wings, antlers, and fangs. Mairwen can’t recall where she learned it—from her grandmother maybe—or if she made it up on her own during long hours cleaning bones to carve for combs and needles.

  Fortunately, Genny seems to like it, and as the townsfolk gather, Mairwen sings it again, louder. They stare at her, this strange saint’s daughter, including the Pugh sisters, the shepherds and bakers, the families who ask her blessing and those who think it strange she dances at the edges of shadows and boils bones despite her holy father. There’s Gethin Couch, Arthur’s father—and the town leatherworker—standing with some brewers and watching his son from the same distance as always. Lace Upjohn, who sent her son in last time. She must come closest to understanding how Mairwen feels. John himself isn’t here. Devyn Argall arrives carrying a stool for Cat Dee, the oldest woman in town, to rest upon. Mair sees her friend Haf Lewis, a pretty girl with a rosy smile, tan cheeks, and sleek black braids, who does not think Mairwen is strange, only Mairwen.