Strange Grace – Tessa Gratton

Branches scrape his cheek, hungry for his blood. Eyes wide, the boy pushes harder, shoving at the sharp, dry leaves, stomping through undergrowth and deadfall. ̨e trees are an old-growth tangle of trip wire, a web of limbs and fingers and claws to snare him. Behind the boy, the devil clicks his teeth. • • • IN THE VALLEY BEYOND THE forest, a bonεre burns on a hill: an orange beacon to oppose the silver moon, its ζames ζick and tremble like a pulse. It is the heart of the valley now, surrounded by weary folk who keep vigil until dawn. Men and women and children, too: Τey hold hands, they wander in sunwise circles, they pray, and they whisper the names of all the saints to come before this boy. Bran Argall. Alun Crewe. Powell Ellis. John Heir. Col Sayer. Ian Pugh. Marc Argall. Mac Priddy.

Stefan Argall. Marc Howell. John Couch. Tom Ellis. Trevor Pugh. Yale Sayer. Arthur Bowen. Owen Heir. Bran Upjohn. Evan Priddy.

Griffin Sayer. Powell Parry. Taffy Sayer. Rhun Ellis. Ny Howell. Rhys Jones. Carey Morgan. And now this boy’s name, again and again and again, an invocation: Baeddan Sayer. Baeddan Sayer. Baeddan Sayer.

Because of him, and all the saints before him, no illness plagues the valley; the sun and rain share the sky in perfect consideration for each other and for the growing land; death comes peacefully in old age; childbirth is only as dangerous and hard as pulling teeth, but no one has to pull teeth here. Τey made this bargain with the devil: Every seven years their best boy is sent into the forest from sundown to sunrise, on the night of the Slaughter Moon. He will live or die on his own mettle, and for his sacriεce the devil blesses Three Graces. • • • MAIRWEN GRACE IS SIX YEARS old. She stands with her mother, the witch, weaving thin rowan branches into a doll for her friend Haf, who was too afraid to hold vigil with the grown-ups. But Mairwen is also the daughter of a saint, a young man who died in the forest before she was born, and so Mairwen is not afraid. She keeps her dark sparrow eyes upon it, on that wall of darkness she knows so well. Her favorite game is to dash to the very edge, to stand where her bare toes brush against the εrst shadow. Τere she waits, at the line between valley and darkness, while the shadows shiδ and tremble, and she can hear the delicate clicking of teeth, the whispers of ghosts, and sometimes—sometimes!— the devil’s laughter. She imagines calling out to them, but her mother makes her swear not to, that she must never say her name where the forest can hear.

A Grace witch began this bargain with her heart, her mother says, and your heart could end it. So Mairwen stands silent, listening—listening, a witch’s εrst skill—to the voices of the dead and discarded. Someday, she thinks as she craδs her doll. Someday she’ll step inside and hunt down her father’s bones. • • • ARTHUR COUCH IS SEVEN YEARS old, and rage he doesn’t understand keeps him hot and awake and staring while the boy beside him slumps in sleepy reverie. For the εrst six years of his life his mother raised Arthur as a girl, called him Lyn, put him in dresses, braided his long blond hair, to save him from this devil’s fate, to hide him away. He knew no better—none did—until an early summer day playing in the creek near the boneyard. All the little girls stripped and splashed, laughing until one girl screamed he was different. Nobody blamed Arthur, who went to live with the Sayer clan and chose a name from the list of saints. His mother fled the valley, crying she hated the Devil’s Forest and the devil’s bargain and to have a son in Τree Graces was to live in terrible fear.

“You might as well already be dead,” she told Arthur before leaving forever. When Arthur glares at the forest, it’s because he can’t turn his glare at the men of Τree Graces, who laughed yesterday when this small boy presented himself as a candidate for sainthood. “I’m small and fast and I can win,” he insisted. “I’m not a coward.” And the men kindly told him to wait another seven years, or perhaps fourteen. But the lord who comes down from his manor for the Slaughter Moon put a hand on Arthur’s bony shoulder and said, “If you want to be a saint, Arthur Couch, learn to be the best. Τe best does not throw his life away for another’s shame, or for anger or to prove anything.” Someday, Arthur thinks as he stares with burning blue eyes at the forest. Someday he’ll run inside that forest and offer his heart to the devil. • • • RHUN SAYER IS THE NEW saint’s youngest cousin, yawning as he leans his brown arm atop Arthur Couch’s shoulder.

He’s not worried, for this vigil is the same as all the vigils his mother and father and uncles and aunts and second cousins and the lord Sy Vaughn and the Pugh sisters and Braith Bowen the smith and every other person has ever told him about. Besides, his cousin Baeddan Sayer is the best. He’s the fourth Sayer to be made a saint, more than in any other family since the beginning. Τey’ve got it in their bones. Two Sayer saints before now crawled out in the morning, two of only four survivors in more than two hundred years. It bothers Arthur, and his friend Mairwen, too, but Rhun knows the forest and the sacriεce and the seven years of health and wealth are just the way life is. Τis night is terrible, but no other night is terrible. And all those other nights the moon and stars light their valley with silver and boys can run and race and play and hunt with no fear. Broken εngers heal in days, blood never pours, infections burn out by sunrise, and you never lose your parents or baby cousins or even any of the ζuΦy puppies. Rhun understands that all the goodness in the valley is what makes the sacriεce worthwhile.

He remembers Baeddan laughing yesterday, blotches of red in his cheeks from beer and wild dancing, petals falling through his thick dark hair as they fell from the saint’s crown. Baeddan leaned down, clasped his hands on Rhun’s cheeks, and said, “Look at everything I have! It is so good here.” Rhun’s eyes droop, though he knows he should keep watching, keep waiting for the pink sunrise, for the εrst ζash of his cousin’s triumphant laughter. Arthur shrugs Rhun away, and so Rhun throws his whole arm around his burning friend. He smiles and smacks a kiss to Arthur’s pale brow. Someday, he thinks. Someday he’ll be the εδh Sayer saint, not in seven years but maybe in fourteen, and until then he will love everything he has. • • • THE MOON SPREADS OVER THE sky, stars tilting like a slow-spinning skirt. It arcs from east to west, counting the hours. The people feed their bonfire.

Wind churns the black leaves of the forest. It hisses and whispers in the way of all forests, until a shriek breaks itself free. Τis is hours past midnight, the worst time, and the scream peels up the spine of every adult and freezes the blood of the children. Τey move nearer their εre, their prayers liδing stronger, edged with desperation. Another scream, inhuman, and another. Followed by cold laughter trembling up from the roots of the forest, frosting the dry winter grass. • • • ATOP THE HILL, MAIRWEN HOLDS her rowan doll so tightly a tiny arm snaps. Her mother sings a quiet song, a lullaby, and Mairwen wonders if her mother is thinking of that last vigil seven years ago, when Carey Morgan ran into the forest not knowing he was soon to be a father, and never came out again. • • • AT THE BONFIRE, ARTHUR’S CHEST rises and falls hard, as if he were the runner. He steps away from the heat, away from his friends and cousins, and nearer to the dark, panting forest.

• • • RHUN WINCES AWAY FROM THE εrst slice of sunlight. He realizes, though, what it means, and drops open his mouth. Others have noticed, too: his father and mother, and Aderyn Grace the witch, the sisters Pugh and the lord Vaughn. Τe name passes from mouth to mouth: Baeddan Sayer. Baeddan Sayer. Τe people of Τree Graces wait, though it is surely too late now. Τe Grace witch murmurs, So the Slaughter Moon has set, and seven more years are ours. Τey no longer feed the bonεre; it will burn itself out, and the ashes will go in winter gardens and soap. As the sun liδs entirely over the mountains, transforming the sky in a bloody wash, Mairwen Grace walks slowly to the edge of the forest. Her mother reaches out but knows better than to say her daughter’s name where the devil might hear.

Mairwen stops alone just where the light of dawn teases the first trees. She stares into the dim and whispers the saint’s name. Nothing happens, and Mairwen throws the rowan doll as far as she can into the Devil’s Forest. • • • LATER, WHEN THE SUN FILLS the valley, a shadow stirs. It is a slinking thing, powerful and hungry. It lifts fingers of bone and root from the forest floor, cradling the tiny doll. It’s a quiet, lovely day, like every day in Three Graces, except one of the horses is sick. Mairwen Grace puts her hand to the beast’s velvety lips and scrapes her εngers under his chin. She was coming from the boneyard, looping wide over the pasture hill to tease herself with the shadows reaching out from the Devil’s Forest, when she saw the gray stallion shudder and lower his head to the stiΦ autumn grass. He did not tear a bite, nor nuzzle it, nor raise his head again.

He only let his head hang and gave a great, racking cough. She’s never heard a horse cough, or even thought it possible. His ζanks darken with sweat and the spirit has drained from his brown eyes. Worry sinks through her gut: Mairwen has known this herd all her sixteen years, and never have any of the sturdy, small horses been anything but the perfect image of health. No one falls ill in Three Graces, because of the bargain. Frowning, Mair leans her shoulder against the horse’s neck, cooing soδly to calm the horse and herself. She gazes out at the forest. Τis near to winter, the leaves curl yellow and orange as far as her eyes can see, to the distant shoulders of mountains and hazy blue sky. Pockets of green remain, of εr and a few mighty oaks whose roots dig deep. Not a sound creeps out from the forest, not of bird nor beast.

It is a silent, strange wood, a crescent of dark shadows and ancient trees embracing the town of Three Graces like the pearl in the mouth of an oyster. And in its deepest center, the Bone Tree rises higher than the rest, with barren branches, gray as a ghost. Every seven years a handful of leaves bloom just at the top, turning red as if some sky-giant has shed drops of blood. A warning that the next full moon will be the Slaughter Moon and one of the boys will become a saint. If they do not send a saint in for sacriεce, the bountiful magic that holds their valley healthy and strong will fade. Then sickness will come, harvests will fail, and babies will die. But it has been only three years since the last Slaughter Moon. Unease wraps εngers around Mairwen’s spine. It draws her like a εsh on a hook toward the forest. Her arm slips away from the horse and she sets down her basket of sun-bleached bones.

Her boots brush loudly against the grass as she picks down the long pasture slope toward the forest, eyes on the dark spaces beyond the first line of trees. Her breath thins and her heart beats faster. Mairwen herself has never been sick, though she’s felt the ζush of nausea before. She thinks of the carcasses hanging in cages in the boneyard, of the buckets of macerating skeletons, all part of cleaning the bones to make magic charms and buttons and combs. She thinks of the tendons, blood, and oΦal, the vile residues and grease of her work. Sometimes the stench of rot gags her, sometimes it slips past the scarf tied about her face and curdles her stomach, but that sort of illness always passes when she finishes changing out the bucket water. This is different. Τe daughter of the Grace witch and the twenty-εδh saint of Τree Graces, Mair has been raised to believe she’s invincible, or at least special. A blessing and good luck charm. But a town like hers hardly needs additional blessings or luck, not when the bargain keeps everything in the valley healthy and good.

So Mairwen pushes at everything. She skims her hands into the forest, and surrounds herself with bones. Although her mother, Aderyn, spends time teaching her the healing ways of the Grace witches, Mairwen is more interested in strangeness. In bone charms and dark edges, in crows and nightmice. In all the things the εrst Grace witch knew and loved. ̨e first learned the language of bats and beetles, sang with the midnight frogs, Mairwen’s mother used to whisper late at night, when Mair climbed onto her bed for stories about the long line of Grace witches. At the final brink of sunshine, Mairwen stops. Fingers of darkness slither over the trees, shadows where none should be, moving in ways no shadows should move. She licks her lips to better taste the hollow breeze and touches her longest εnger to the cool trunk of a tall oak tree. Her toes wiηle in her boots, and she steps forward, half in shadow, half in light.

Her apron turns gray in the shade while the sun continues to warm her tangled cherry-bark hair. “Hello,” she says soδly, but her voice carries through the dull εrst few feet of the forest. Wind blows, whispering back at her from the canopy above. From here she can see uneven rows of trees, some oak, some pole pines, chestnut, she thinks, and other grand, proud trees, their leaves curling orange and gold as εre. Τe ground is covered in leaves and pine needles, all grayish brown from decay. No undergrowth for a long stretch that ends in a snarl of rowan and hawthorn and weedy hedges. She wishes to step inside. Longs to explore, to discover the forest’s secrets. But her mother has said, again and again, Grace witches do not return from the forest. We all hear the call, eventually, and walk inside forever.

My mother did, and hers before that. You were born with the call, baby bird, because of your daddy, and must resist. Mairwen clenches her hands together. It does not seem right to ignore this yearning, but her mother has promised: Someday, someday, baby bird. She listens carefully—a witch’s εrst lesson, her mother has also said. A leaf falls, brown and torn. A cluster of white flowers shivers against a root, tiny as a handful of baby teeth. She taps her own teeth gently together. Some evenings and other dawns she hears the creatures of the forest gnashing theirs. She’s seen them: tiny black squirrels with hollow eyes; birds with hands and bloody beaks; larger shadows formed like people or mountain cats; shiδing, see-through shadows.

Monstrous because the magic of the bargain has made them so, Aderyn says. When the setting or rising sun paints the sky the pale colors, this threshold becomes impossible to see, and Mairwen likes to come here to εnd it with her touch, with her skin and mouth and the nervous ζutter of eyelashes. Τen she can hear them, the clicks and hisses, the rattling laughter that even in summertime sounds like empty winter branches and bones. But not now, not when the sun is high behind her. Now it is a tense, quiet forest. A promise. Mairwen thought she knew exactly what that promise was. But one of the horses is sick. Something is wrong. Something has changed.

A laugh tumbles out of her, jagged and surprising. Nothing changes in Three Graces, not like this. Whirling, she dashes up the hill to the poor horse. From her basket she draws a thin, curved bone, yellow and hard. A rib from a fox, as long as her foreεnger. She braids it into the horse’s mane, whispering a song for happiness and health. Hair, bone, and breath: life and death tied together and blessed, a perfect little charm. Then she takes off for her mother’s house. Τe golden grass of the pasture is nothing beneath her sturdy boots, though bits of it cling to the short hem of her skirts. She’s grown a handspan in the last year and her summer clothes make it plain.

Her wrists stick out of her sleeves, too, and what used to be a bright blue bodice is faded and worn. At least her mother’s handed-down square shawl εts: It’s hard to outgrow a shawl. Mairwen is molded exactly aδer her mother, Aderyn Grace, in most ways: strong shoulders and round hips and capable hands; a ruddy face more interesting than pretty, but with a round little nose and bowed lips; eyes as plain brown as sparrow feathers under straight brows; cherry-bark hair that twists and annoys like brambles.

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