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Strange Grace

Strange Grace

Strange Grace 9


  No. Arthur has no idea.

  Hungry, he shoves off the quilt and pulls on a fresh shirt and boots and a thin knitted sweater handed down from Rhun Senior. He quietly climbs down the ladder to his long leather hunting coat, then picks his way over Sayer cousins and one of the Argall brothers—Per, he thinks it was, who followed him here last night. Outside, he grabs the well bucket and hooks it onto its rope before plunging it down. The water is cold but not yet freezing, and refreshing on his face. He runs wet fingers through his hair, shakes his head, and sends the bucket down again for water to take inside to Nona Sayer.

  The front door is ajar and he knocks it open further with his foot. Saint Branwen sniffs at his hip while Llew stretches his long legs exactly in the most way of Arthur’s path.

  Nona says, “Thanks for that; here’s bread,” and trades him the bucket for a hot crust. “Butter’s out too, today, and ham.”

  He thanks her and spreads plentiful butter, sitting on one of the precarious three-legged stools while she pours the new water into her cauldron over the fire. “Rhun up?” he asks quietly.

  “No.” The tightening of her mouth in disapproval suggests to Arthur she’s less happy with her son’s fate than she ever let on before.

  “I . . . ,” he starts, but doesn’t know how to show her any of his heart. It’s never been necessary before: Nona took him in when his mother left and his father couldn’t bear looking at him. She treated him hard but kindly, and doesn’t expect any thanks, she’s said often enough he believes her.

  Nona faces her adopted son, studying him carefully enough as Arthur eats his entire breakfast under her stare. She’s handsome and tall, with the same warm brown skin and same eyes as Rhun, but hers are tinged with displeasure, as if the world will always disappoint her. Probably that’s why Arthur usually relaxes around her, feeling the same.

  She says, “I’m glad to have to worry about only one of my sons tonight.”

  Rather angry than touched, Arthur rises to his full height. “You’re so sure which one?”

  Gesturing for him to lower his voice, Nona says, “No.”

  It stuns Arthur. He crosses his arms over his chest. “You think it might be me?”

  “I doubt it, here in a place like Three Graces. Out in the rest of the world, though, you would be the one.”

  “Why?”

  “The rest of the world appreciates ambition and fire.”

  “Not you, though. You chose this place, knowing both worlds.”

  Nona smiles her flat, no-nonsense smile. “It is a very good place, Arthur.”

  “No it’s not. What kind of good place takes its best and throws it away?”

  “We don’t throw it away. It’s a sacrifice. A hard one, and don’t you think otherwise. There’s no power in throwing something away, only in giving something up.”

  Arthur clutches himself. “How can you do it? How can you just let this happen to Rhun?”

  The older woman stares down her nose at him. “This is a better way than the way of the outside world.”

  “How?” Arthur hears the ache in his own voice, the pitch of pleading.

  Nona sighs hard enough to blow down a straw house. “In the rest of the world, Arthur, bad things take you by surprise. They knock down your door when you’re cooking dinner, they knock down your door when you’re sleeping, or sometimes they don’t even knock at all. You’re worried about it all the time. If I raised my sons out there, this danger might have found Rhun years ago, or if he survived this long, it might find him any day in his future. But here in Three Graces, we throw the door open wide and say, ‘Today is the day, trouble. Your only chance.’ ” She takes Arthur’s wan face in her warm hands. “The dread today is hard, but the relief will be so much finer. I prefer to keep the devil on a schedule.”

  Arthur feels his fire calming—no, not calming, but settling in deep, like the hottest embers in the heart of a log. It makes sense to him, on a profound level, to choose such a thing. To invite trouble when you’re ready for it. He is ready for it.

  But nobody else can see.

  Nona strokes her thumbs along her prickly almost-son’s temples, then lets her hands slide away from his face. “Go outside, boy, and I’ll send Rhun along in a moment.”

  He obeys.

  • • •

  DAWN PASSES, AND NEITHER MAIRWEN nor Rhun wake, having finally fallen hard and heavy into the first real sleep either have experienced in days. Mair wakes first, and suddenly. Something in the kitchen snapped her out of dull dreaming. The mattress crunches as she shifts and blinks against bright sunlight. She slowly stretches her arm around Rhun’s chest, flexes her toes, rolls her neck, and snuggles deeper against him. His breath puffs the hair at the top of her head, and one of his arms curls around her waist, pinned beneath her.

  She lays a hand over his heart. A few curled black hairs accent the shape of his muscles, and she traces their path below his collarbone and down his stomach. Rhun’s hand around her tightens, and she stops moving, lifting her gaze to his still sleeping face. The sunlight gilds his short eyelashes, and an ache of fear clenches in her belly.

  Swallowing it away as best she can, Mairwen glances around. Wool blankets hang on the walls to lessen the drafts from the old stone. The cream and gray brighten the entire room. He’s tied blessings and bone amulets to one of them, on the eastern wall. A trunk set in the corner holds his few clothes beside the leather jerkin and hunting hood spread over a stool. His axes lean against the trunk, his bow and quiver, as well as pieces of unmade arrows on the floor, including three white feathers she brought him, salvaged from the body of a swan in the shambles.

  The sunlight brings it all clear. Sunlight from those narrow south-facing windows. Mairwen jerks, clutching at Rhun, who wakes instantly.

  “Mair?” he says thickly.

  “It is late,” she whispers.

  Just then, the heavy blanket tied across Rhun’s bedroom door snaps aside. His mother stands with her arms out majestically, a fierce glare shaping her entire face. “Idiot children! You’re late, Rhun. Get up. Arthur’s waiting outside to go with you. And you”—Nona sweeps her eyes down Mairwen’s thinly covered body—“you’re due at your mother’s house to sew the saint shirt with the rest of us.”

  And Nona Sayer is gone again. The blanket falls hard behind her.

  Rhun rolls out of bed swiftly. Mair grips the corner of the blanket, sticking it and her hands under her chin. As he strips off his braies, she stares, lips parted, at all his long lines. Rhun, naked as a babe, throws open the trunk and digs in. He holds up a wad of cloth. “I know I’ll receive the saint’s shirt this afternoon, but I should wear fresh underthings to run in, don’t you think?”

  Mairwen attempts a smile, though teasing is the last thing she wishes for today. “That’s what you call fresh? Balled up in your trunk?”

  Rhun laughs, lighthearted as the sun. Mair longs to lose the weight on her chest too. When he stands, facing her and entirely naked crown to toes, it’s her voice she loses instead. He steps into the woolen braies a leg at a time, smiling a promise at her, and straightens, tying them fast at his waist.

  She slips out of the bed and kneels before him. She ties the soft braies at his knees, skimming her fingers against his calves. When she finishes she peers up, leaning back on her heels. She smiles bright and clean and with everything of bounty she can make it. None of her shadows, none of her bristling. “I’ll help you with your stockings and the rest, too.”

  Together they dress him, in dark wool and leather, tying and buckling until he’s fit to go into the forest. Mairwen slips the lacing of her bodice free and uses it to help him tie back his curls.

  He kisses her mouth, and her heartbeat slows, regulating itself to the central rhythm of Three Graces: the Slaughter Moon, the bargain, the Bone Tree, and Rhun Sayer.

  Rhun picks up her skirt and holds it open for her to get into, then buttons it for her. She pulls her bodice over her arms, but leaves it open on the f
ront for lack of laces. Rhun wraps her square shawl over her shoulders, then finds her boots and helps her on with them.

  From the kitchen, Nona Sayer roars, “Out, both of you, now!”

  But Rhun takes Mairwen’s hand. “When the saint comes for you tonight, will you dance with him?”

  “You know I will,” she says. With that, she gathers her shawl across her undressed chest and ducks out of his room, wishing she could make herself the saint.

  Nona leans against her uneven kitchen table, brow lifted expectantly. Mairwen thinks she should tell Nona that her son was good and broke no rules, even at the urging of the saint’s own daughter, but all she does is hold herself tall. “Good morning,” she says tightly as she leaves.

  Nona Sayer snorts. “I’ll catch up to you, girl.”

  Mairwen winces at the bright sunlight as she pushes out of the house and stands there, gazing down the slope of yard that ends in thick mountain woods. She can’t see any of the valley from here—for that, one must be up on that coveted second story—but the mountain trees are colorful enough, full of jewel-toned leaves and rustling shadows. Overhead the sky is perfect blue with sheer clouds. The air’s near balmy for so late in the season.

  Several paces away Arthur Couch sits up from the grass. Leaves cling to his spiky blond hair. His look of surprise pinches as he sees her and stands slowly. “What are you doing here?”

  Tightening her shawl around her, Mairwen clenches her jaw. “What do you think?”

  “Dressed like that.” Arthur bites out every word.

  “Jealous?” she asks.

  Arthur’s lips part and he stares at her as if she’s both completely right and completely wrong. Mair pushes past him and starts down the path.

  “How could you?” Arthur calls, as if he has some claim to her.

  She spins back around. “I was reminding him who he has to fight for, Arthur Couch!”

  Instead of yelling back, or even sneering as she expected when she threw his own words in his face, the young man nods slowly, bobbing his head like a bird.

  Her irritation melts, and Mairwen chews her bottom lip. But she has nothing else to say to Arthur. So she turns again, stomping through fallen leaves.

  A hand grabs her elbow and swings her around. Arthur’s flickering eyes gouge into hers. “He didn’t let you, though, did he? I would have.”

  She shrugs. “That’s only proof of what we both already know about the difference between you and Rhun Sayer.”

  “And you and Rhun Sayer,” Arthur shoots back.

  Mair’s blood boils, and her cheeks flush hot, like Arthur infected her with his burning ulcer. “Fine, yes,” she hisses. “We’re neither of us as good as him, neither of us noble and bound to the promise of Three Graces. Is that what you want to hear? It doesn’t matter. It’s him who’s going into the forest, him who’ll face the devil. The men will choose him because he’s everything a saint of this town is supposed to be: brave, strong, kind, generous, friendly! Noble and innocent, and not always angry and doubting like us. That’s how it should be. If we didn’t love him, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice.” She jerks free of Arthur’s touch. “You paint a smile on that sour face, and you don’t let him see anything else. He doesn’t need your frustration and doubts and denials. Do you understand me?”

  “Yes,” Arthur murmurs. He holds his hands away from her. “I understand you perfectly.”

  “Good. Because he loves you, and if he doubts he has reason to survive this night, it will be your fault.”

  This time, when Mairwen leaves, Arthur doesn’t stop her.

  Her wild heartbeat presses her home fast, and Nona doesn’t manage to catch up with her after all.

  • • •

  RHUN’S MOTHER HANDS HIM A thick slice of bread slathered in butter, with strips of fried ham on top. “Here. Eat up. You’ll need it.”

  He takes his first huge bite while Nona watches. “I’ve got to get to the Grace house,” she says when he swallows. “I love you. I’ll see you . . . tomorrow morning.”

  Before eating more, Rhun balances the bread precariously on the edge of the table and grabs Nona in a hug. It might be his last chance.

  She returns it ferociously, but neither says more before she frees herself and leaves him.

  Chewing slowly to savor the breakfast, Rhun shrugs his quiver on his shoulder and double-checks he’s got his bow on his back and his long knife strapped to his thigh. The hilt of the knife is made of yellowish bone, smooth and warm under his thumb.

  Outside, Rhun breathes deeply as he joins Arthur standing in the center of the yard. The sky is bright, the air warmer than he expected, and all the trees flicker their leaves at him. It’s a beautiful last day.

  Of course he shouldn’t think that way, but he doesn’t try hard to stop it. If he’s learned nothing about himself, it’s that he needs to be in the moment to truly appreciate it. Why pretend he might have more beautiful autumn days when he can embrace the promise of his fate and better love this now?

  Arthur says, “Do you think this place would be prettier if it rained more often? So we had bad weather to compare with our good?”

  Rhun laughs. “No. It rains exactly the right amount.”

  Giving him an angry look, Arthur starts toward the path up the mountain. But then, Arthur’s looks are nearly always angry, so it can’t touch Rhun’s broad, winning mood. He hums as he goes after, striding longer than necessary, until he’s far enough ahead of Arthur to turn backward and grin. “Keep up, man!”

  Arthur says, “What’s the point?”

  “I want to be—I . . .” Rhun waits for his friend. “I’m glad to spend this day with you,” he says.

  “Oh.” Arthur turns his head away as he catches up. His eyes widen in shock and panic as he takes in the trees around them, the golden-brown leaves and narrow deer path.

  It dawns on Rhun this is very near the place he kissed Arthur three years ago. Fear tenses up his stomach and he swallows. He opens his mouth, but nothing pops in fast enough to fix it.

  “I’m all right,” Arthur says roughly. He won’t meet Rhun’s gaze, but then suddenly he does: Arthur’s blue eyes intense enough to curl Rhun’s toes. “I’d run for you. Let me do it for you.”

  Rhun thinks, This could be the last time we’re alone. The last time I have a chance to say anything. But then it sinks in what Arthur said. Let me do it for you.

  “You can’t do it for me,” Rhun says. “It’s mine to do.”

  Arthur’s lips begin to curl, and Rhun leaps forward. “I don’t mean you couldn’t. I mean I won’t let you. I won’t let you die for me.”

  “Instead you die for me?” Arthur whispers. There’s a thing so helpless in his face it takes all Rhun’s willpower to keep himself from touching his friend. His crackling, frantic, beautiful friend. All the desire Mair teased out in him last night and this morning nearly bowls him over; he wants to just reach out and take something of Arthur for himself.

  “I’m running, not dying,” Rhun says.

  Arthur winces rather elegantly. His choppy hair catches all the morning light, bursting like the sun itself. He reaches out in a jerking motion, and before Rhun can brace himself, puts his hand on Rhun’s shoulder. It’s always the other way around: Rhun touching Arthur, not this way, not from Arthur’s choosing. “I don’t want you to die,” Arthur says. “I—I don’t know what I would do.”

  “I don’t want to either.” He puts his hand over Arthur’s, hoping for more and happy with this.

  “Good. Then.” Arthur withdraws his hand but doesn’t back away. His jaw clenches and he holds Rhun’s gaze. “We should go up.”

  “Yes,” Rhun says. He smiles, no longer trying to secret his heart away. This is perfect. This was perfect. He grins and hums to himself, ignoring Arthur’s standard scornfully friendly laugh. He feels so light, so open, all the weight of worry and his lost four years gone, all the anxiety that something changed melted away. Rhun Sayer hikes up the mountain with his best frien
d at his side, knowing he kept the vow he made to himself and his cousin-saint Baeddan: to love everything he has.

  • • •

  MAIR ARRIVES HOME IN A fit. Every few feet she pauses to crouch and rip grass from the earth and throw it into the wind with all the force she can muster. When her house is in sight, she takes great seething breaths and tries to calm herself down. Smoke floats up from the front yard, and all the house windows are thrown open. As she approaches, she grips the shawl more tightly over her breasts. A surge of womanly laughter reminds her she’ll have an audience, for the women already gather here to bless the saint shirt.

  She sweeps around the northeast corner, walking proudly along the short wall toward the gooseberry bushes. More than a dozen women sit circled around her mother’s fire, on chairs and stools dragged here from their own homes and from inside Mairwen’s. They pass three bottles of wine among them, braiding ribbon charms and chattering enthusiastically. It’s Martha Parry with the saint shirt in her lap: Woven of the finest gray wool, with perfect seams, already it bears the marks of several women in the form of embroidered flowers, tiny circles, spirals, and lightning shapes in every color of thread owned in Three Graces. Most of them collect on the chest, where they’ll settle over Rhun’s heart, but some arc like rainbows down one arm.

  The conversation falls away as Mairwen stands there beside the tangled mass of gooseberries. Her mother rises from her place between Beth Pugh and her sister Hetty, whose mouth opens in a lazy grin when she meets Mairwen’s gaze. Hetty pats back dark hair, and Mairwen inadvertently touches her own, which is more brambled than usual. Haf stares at her, eyes wide.

  Aderyn beckons her daughter forward, and Mair hurries around the bushes to the front gate with as much dignity as a half-naked sixteen-year-old girl can when caught before her mother and aunts and cousins.

  Hetty Pugh snorts loud. “Lazy girl, you’ve entirely missed breakfast.”

  Mairwen’s tongue betrays her as she stops beside the fire, nearly in the exact center of the circle of women. She drops her shawl and cries, “It’s the only thing I’m allowed to do! For him. Not go into the forest myself!”