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Strange Grace 8
“I’m sorry,” she calls from behind him as he reaches the churchyard and stops against the short stone wall of the little cemetery. He turns to her; she’s lit from behind by the fire. Mairwen touches the wall to steady herself, and he realizes she’s drunker than him.
“Don’t be sorry,” Arthur says.
“Arthur,” she says, “I’ve never been so . . . out of sorts.”
He doesn’t move, a pale spirit against the dark cemetery beyond. Rough-cut stones marked with family names spread in uneven lines between the holy cross monument in the west and in the east the plain pillar memorial carved with the names of all the boys lost to the Devil’s Forest in two hundred years. Arthur can’t read the names from here, nor even see the shadow of them against the creamy stone, but he knows them, and knows the order. He recites them in his mind, to eradicate thoughts of her hands. The last name is Baeddan Sayer, carved ten years ago. How terrible will it feel to see Rhun’s name there? To wait at dawn for him to never come home?
So lost in the sick thought is Arthur that he doesn’t notice Mairwen until she’s just beside him. He eyes her as his anger reignites, mingled now not only with desire, but worry and sorrow. A mess of sharp, contradictory emotions. He says, “Can you imagine my name there?”
Mair sits on the wall, clutching the corner of it tight enough to mark her palms. “I refuse to. Bad enough seeing my father’s name.”
Arthur glances at the memorial pillar, where he knows Carey Morgan is carved.
“If it were you,” she whispers, and Arthur scoffs but seats himself beside her and hangs his head.
“If it were you,” Mairwen begins again, “what would make you feel better tonight?”
He looks back toward the square, firelight awaking in his eyes, reflecting the fire in his heart. “Knowing what I had to fight for.”
“You mean the town? All of this reminding you how good it is? The saint’s shirt to carry with you as a—as a talisman of Three Graces?”
“No, stupid girl.”
Her back straightens and she opens her mouth to snap and leave him, but Arthur says, “I mean who I had to fight for. Knowing she’d be there at dawn, waiting.”
All Mairwen’s breath rushes out.
“I’d survive it. I’m harder and faster than him,” Arthur says. “I don’t let anything hurt me and have no pity to slow me down. And of course I’m more expendable.”
“No one is expendable,” Mairwen answers ferociously.
Arthur kisses her. He kisses with his lips and teeth, hard and formidable, hands on her jaw and neck, dragging her closer. And Mairwen kisses him back. She flings her arms around him, shoving as much of herself against him as she can. His teeth drag at her lip. Her nails claw his scalp. These are not fresh or easy kisses.
Suddenly Mairwen pulls away with a cry, violent enough to stumble to the ground, landing on her hip.
She stares up at Arthur, who’s on his feet, jaw clenched and a hand hovering near his mouth. Moonlight brightens her eyes, and her teeth glint between open lips. “Oh, no,” she says. “Not now, not you, not tonight!”
It cuts hard into him, the abruptness and finality of her rejection. Angst twists in his stomach, leaving rope burns. But she’s also right. Tonight is the night before the Slaughter Moon. Rhun’s Slaughter Moon. He says, “Rhun told me . . . when he . . . kissed me . . .”
Mairwen scrubs at her mouth.
Arthur wants to drag her hands away, hurt her for it. He has to take deep breaths. He says in as calm a voice as he’s able, “He told me he kissed me because he wanted me to know, before next time. His time. His moon.”
“I know how Rhun feels,” she hisses. “About me and you.”
“Does he know how you feel?”
“I think everybody knows.”
“I mean, does he really understand?” Arthur grinds his teeth together, hating everything in the entire world. “You love him too, and so you should . . . make sure he knows.”
Her eyes sink to Arthur’s mouth, and he forces his body still lest it catch fire again. “You should too,” she whispers, then stands up and leaves him alone with the dead.
• • •
THE BONFIRE BLAZES UNTIL AFTER midnight, and though a handful of older women and their husbands remain to usher the embers and ashes into death, the square quiets. Mairwen strays farther and farther into the fields, tilting and a bit drunk, worried and reckless and cursing herself for kissing Arthur Couch. If love can protect Rhun, if that’s all she can do, she must not divide her heart! Finally, she collapses onto the cold grass and stares up at the stars. They blur and blink, and Mair’s mouth is still hot, her heart a mess.
She was in love with Arthur Couch for two minutes when they were children, when she found out her friend Lyn was not a girl after all, though she was still unsure how it should matter to her and their friends. Mair stared at Lyn as he became a boy, and she remembers clearly the look on his face when he chose what to do, which part of himself to cling to, which rules he’d allow to define him. But for a moment—a wild, mysterious moment—he’d been both a boy and a girl, and neither, and Mairwen had the eager idea that Lyn-Arthur could stand with her at the edge of the Devil’s Forest.
That moment passed, that between space, that shadow where possibilities lived.
Arthur never stepped into it again. He chose the worst parts of boys, thinking they were the strongest when they were only the least girl. It made him hurt Rhun, and that Mairwen has no interest in forgiving.
Next time, she thinks as she lays on the cold ground, next time, as if Arthur passed along a sickness. This is Rhun’s next time. She presses her hips back against the earth, puts her hands to her waist and slides them up along her bodice to her flattened breasts. Her eyes fall closed and she touches her lips.
Later Mairwen wakes up, chilly and light-headed. Glad her mother never bothers to worry when Mair forgets to sleep in her loft, she climbs to her feet, stretches all the way up to the sky, and turns toward the Sayer homestead. Next time.
She’s thought of something she can do.
There is plenty Mairwen Grace knows about magic (life and death and blessing between), and plenty she knows about the bargain (the devil is an old god of the forest, and a witch’s heart is the heart of the spell), and there is one way she can think to use magic and love to save Rhun Sayer.
Four hours before sunrise, the night is crisp and still, but bright as twilight thanks to the moon and stars casting silver over the rolling valley. Mairwen pauses at the vista before her: the pale stone houses of Three Graces shine like pieces of the moon itself; the spreading gray fields; thin smoke weaves up from chimneys and vanishes in the scatter of stars; their mountains wait dark and calm and strong.
It will never be the same without Rhun.
Rhun Sayer who’s kind to everybody, who stops to help carry water or mend a torn doll, who is so good at reading his competition he always knows if he can get away with letting them win. He used to lift Mair up onto his shoulders so she could see over the crowd at the spring games, until she was too old for it to be proper, and he lifted little Bree Lewis instead. Rhun never drinks too much to walk straight and endures his cousins’ teasing like an oak in an autumn storm. He forgives Arthur over and over again. Once Mairwen complained to Haf that he’s overprotective of her, and Haf replied, Not of you, of everybody.
He was born a saint, and nobody in town doubts it.
Rhun himself never has.
He is so perfect, he’s going to die.
She walks quickly at first, but shifts faster as her heartbeat picks up and she thinks of her intentions. Rhun can’t be alone tonight. He must know how much she needs him, how much they all need him, alive and real, not a name on a cold memorial. Rhun deserves to know he’s loved, more than—than Arthur, more than herself.
There are just enough moonbeams under the trees for her well-adjusted eyes to clearly see the way up the path. No light shines from the Sayer house, though a flicker of can
dle glow presses through the small window of their outbuilding. It’s long as a barn, where the Sayers store hunting tools and weapons, and an odd collection of deadfall branches Rhun’s grandfather used to make furniture. Mairwen sneaks toward the window and carefully widens the shutter gap to peer inside. Rhun’s small brother Patrick sleeps on a pile of deerskins with Marc and Morcant Upjohn, and one other boy she can’t recognize for how his features are blocked by sprawling hands. The four boys have feet on stomachs and heads under arms, layered like puppies. It means Rhun will be alone in the room he used to share with Arthur and Brac.
She goes to the main house, surprised to discover the front door open. But two of the Sayer deerhounds spread across the entryway like snoring furry shadows. Mair walks up slowly, and Saint Branwen lifts her bearded face.
“There, Bran,” Mairwen says softly, and hears the thump of the dog’s hairy tail. The other, Llew, stretches all four of his legs out straight, shivering with the release, but doesn’t bother standing. He trusts Branwen, Mair thinks, as she scratches the dog’s neck and behind her ears. She then steps carefully over both hounds in one large effort.
The house is dark, even the hearth banked down, and smells of ash and blessing thistle. She pauses to let her eyes adjust again. It won’t do to knock into the broad table or stumble over a stool. Nona and Rhun the Elder bed upstairs, for Nona claimed the valley view from the second floor within days of arriving in Three Graces, and wouldn’t give it up for convenience nor love.
The walls are hung with wooden saint blessings, gloriously pronged antlers, and a small painting of a grand lady Nona brought with her from the rest of the world. No bundles of drying herbs hang from this ceiling, though several heavy hooks bear pots and wooden spoons. The packed floor is covered with a few furred skins, and the furniture Rhun’s grandfather made huddles in odd proportions because he rarely cut or carved his wood into regular forms. One arm of a chair might be longer than the other, but curved so gracefully it would insult the saints to trim it. The stools are smooth to sit on, but not square in shape or even circled.
As a whole, the home always strikes Mairwen as odd and particular, but comfortable. She can imagine herself living inside it, when she imagines living inside any walls at all.
The door to Rhun’s rear room is only a rectangle arch with a heavy wool blanket tied across. Mair skims her fingers down the coarse material, scratching slightly as a warning. She lifts the blanket aside and enters. Here, with only two high, narrow windows in the outer stone wall, she can barely see.
She hears him moving in the darkest corner. Shadows shift, and there he is, standing off his low bed. “Rhun,” she answers.
“What are you doing here?”
Mairwen takes the three steps necessary to put her against him. She peers up at his shadow-concealed face. Only the glints of eyes and teeth are visible. In reply, she lets go of her square shawl so it slithers off her shoulders and she unlaces her bodice. She takes a deep breath as her ribs are released from the gentle pressure and shrugs out of it. She unbuttons the waistband, then steps out of her skirt to stand in only her wool shirt and stockings, suddenly running hot with anticipation. Twisting her fingers together, she opens her mouth to speak, too aware of the brush of cloth against her breasts, the sharpening of her skin, the loose bramble of her hair a teasing pressure between her shoulder blades. Her belly quivers and pieces of her she usually ignores knot tight. All she’s done is take off her outer layer of clothes.
Rhun does not need to be invited any louder.
He reaches for her, taking her hips in his hands. Mair touches his chest, realizing he’s in even less than she: an old, worn pair of braies loose and threadbare and soft. She touches his skin and flattens her hands over his chest, dragging her palms over his dark nipples to his stomach. It’s smooth and soft with a layer of bounty and health, rich as the earth, and she digs her fingers to find the hard, flexed muscle beneath.
Rhun shudders and does the same to her hips, and they grip each other too tightly.
“We’re not supposed to do this,” he says.
“Whatever the best boy does is right and good,” she teases, his own frequent words, tilting her head up for a kiss. Their mouths come together lightly, touching quick. Rhun shakes his head, pushing her hips back and holding her an arm’s length away. He says nothing.
Mair touches his mouth, then his waist again, and presses the heels of her hands to his hips. Her mouth is dry; she licks her lips, staring through the darkness at the curve toward his belly and the arc of skin vanishing beneath the laces of his braies. “Let me give you this to hold on to, to remember, so you know exactly what you have to come home to.”
“Holy mother Mary,” he breathes.
Mairwen smiles for how it sounds like her own name, even as she flushes. She knows what to do. Her mother made certain Mair knew her own body as soon as she started to bleed. She slides her hands flat along Rhun’s worn waistband, but he grabs her again, pulling her against him, kissing hard. He takes her ribs, slides his hands up her back, down her arms, to her waist and hips and rear, a mess of desperate pulling. Mairwen sighs, lets her head fall back, arching against him. Rhun puts one arm full around her waist. His other hand draws up to her breast and hovers there, either unsure or reverent.
Mairwen is still, cool and calmer than she thinks she should be. “Rhun,” she whispers, and he strangles some wordless answer, hand pressing her breast flat. She grabs for his neck, tugging onto her toes, and puts her mouth against his throat, where he tastes like smoke and salt. She will make a charm of these kisses: life, death, and blessing in between.
“Stop, Mair. Wait. Stop,” he gasps, resisting her with his hands clenched in fists. “I can’t.” He pants between his words, but forces them out. “I can’t. Mair, we have to—to stop.”
She releases him and sits on the straw mattress. After a long moment, she says, “We don’t have to stop, Rhun.”
“We do, because . . . ,” he whispers. He’s a black pillar in the center of the small room, hands pressed together flatly as if in prayer.
She says, “I do love you. I’ve never said it to you, have I?”
His back is half turned away, but his shoulders slump and his head tilts to her. All his spiral hair flops down around his face. “I love you too, so much.”
“Come here, then. Come here and—and just do it.”
He crouches, one hand balanced on the packed-earth floor. “It isn’t because of you, because I don’t want to—with you.”
She slides off the bed to kneel beside him. His eyes are tight shut, his mouth in a line. She says, “Arthur. If it were him here, you’d do it.”
Rhun lifts his dark eyes and shrugs helplessly.
They bend together in silence for a long while. Frustration makes her feel brittle and sharp. Finally she says, “I’ll go.”
“No.” He catches her hand. “Stay. I want you to stay. Even if he were here I’d . . . Oh God, I’d want you to stay too. Both of you. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Maybe I’m not the best.”
The admittance of doubt freezes her heart. She blinks away sudden tears. It’s so stupid, so unfair that this has been his burden for so long. “Don’t let Arthur Couch make you question yourself, do you hear me? He’s an idiot. He has everything, and pushes it away because of fear.” She brushes springy hair back from Rhun’s face, gathering it in her hands, and together they climb onto the straw mattress. Leaning against the rough wall, Rhun pulls her against him, his arm slung around her. She plays with the tips of his fingers, calloused from a thousand times plucking his bow.
Into the darkness, he says, “After all of this, will you promise me to take care of him?”
Mairwen hisses, clutching his hand. “You’ll do it, because you’ll live.”
“Mair.” He leans his head against hers.
“Arthur can take care of himself.”
“You promise me you’ll live.”
Rhun sighs. His eyes close.
Mairwen strokes a finger down his crooked nose. “Survive, and I’ll marry Arthur to trap him here, and you can live with us, because I’m a witch and you’re a saint and we can do whatever we want, and then you can spend the rest of your life seducing him. We’ll fight all the time, but we’ll be happy.”
A laugh bubbles up Rhun’s throat, popping light and merry. “And we’ll never know who fathers your children, tying us all together even more.”
“Oh, we’ll know,” Mairwen sneers. “Yours won’t cause me any pain at all, and Arthur will only have daughters with hearts so hot they burn me the entire time they’re cooking.”
Rhun kisses her, slowly and shallowly, then kisses her nose and eyelids. “You should do that if I don’t survive too.”
Mairwen feels tears in her eyes again, angry tears for not knowing how to convince him he can’t go into that forest expecting to die. He touches his nose to her neck, breathing long and slow and thin down her collarbone. It slides under her shirt and over her breasts and she clears her throat gently. In her normal, though quiet, voice, she says, “I wish I could go in with you.”
He only laughs softly and whispers her name.
Arthur wakes up with the sun, on his pallet in the loft of the Sayer barn. It’s a small half room partitioned by old trunks and pieces of Rhun’s grandfather’s unfinished furniture. A square window faces northeast, though the tall pine trees on this side of the mountain block all but the most determined dawn rays. Other than weapons, Arthur has very little in the way of personal belongings.
Groggy from staying up most of the night with the other potential runners, he yawns and rubs his eyes. Their mood was too soft for his taste, all of them accepting their fate—or rather their lack of one. Rhun will be the saint.
Is it always so obvious? Arthur wonders. Did everyone know three years ago that John Upjohn would be the runner? Did they know it of Baeddan Sayer ten years ago? He casts his thoughts forward to the boys that will be teenagers in seven more years. Can he guess?