“An alluring and seductive fairy tale.” —Justina Ireland, New York Times bestselling author of Dread Nation
“Horrifying, heartbreaking, and heartwarming, a lush fairy tale rooted in a moral quandary.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“An eerie, consuming tale of sacrifice and faith. Haunting and unique.” —Booklist
Once, a witch made a pact with a devil. The legend says they loved each other, but can the story be trusted at all? Find out in this lush, atmospheric fantasy novel that entwines love, lies, and sacrifice.
Long ago, a village made a bargain with the devil: to ensure their prosperity, when the Slaughter Moon rises, the village must sacrifice a young man into the depths of the Devil’s Forest.
Only this year, the Slaughter Moon has risen early.
Bound by duty, secrets, and the love they share for one another, Mairwen, a spirited witch; Rhun, the expected saint; and Arthur, a restless outcast, will each have a role to play as the devil demands a body to fill the bargain. But the devil these friends find is not the one they expect, and the lies they uncover will turn their town—and their hearts—inside out.
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|Publisher:||Margaret K. McElderry Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.30(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
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 fingers 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 stiff 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 flanks 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 softly to calm the horse and herself. She gazes out at the forest. This 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 fir 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 sacrifice, 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 fingers around Mairwen’s spine. It draws her like a fish 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 flush 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 offal, 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.
The daughter of the Grace witch and the twenty-fifth saint of Three 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 night-mice. In all the things the first Grace witch knew and loved. The 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 finger to the cool trunk of a tall oak tree. Her toes wiggle 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 softly, but her voice carries through the dull first 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 fire. The 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 first 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; shifting, 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 find it with her touch, with her skin and mouth and the nervous flutter of eyelashes. Then 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 forefinger. 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.
The 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 fits: It’s hard to outgrow a shawl. Mairwen is molded exactly after 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.
At the pasture wall, Mairwen climbs up to walk a measure along the top and delay the moment she arrives home. She’ll tell her mother what she’s found. This won’t be her secret anymore. It will spiral out to the entire valley. Rhun will hear it.
If something is wrong with the bargain, what will happen to Rhun?
The wall stones are locked together by puzzling only, and so Mairwen treads lightly lest she set it all crumbling. She’s been forbidden this game too many times, especially after her friend Haf fell off and broke her wrist when they were six. The bones healed in less than a week, of course. Now the rough stones wobble and tremble beneath her, but Mair can’t bring herself to hop down. She’s too exhilarated, too terrified and confused. Is this what the first Grace witch felt, Mair wonders, when she met the devil himself, when she gave him her heart?
Cool wind rushes across the fields, ruffling the grasses. As she grows more still, Mair can hear the tang of Braith Bowen’s smith hammer, but no other sound from Three Graces finds her ears. Her back still turned against the northern Devil’s Forest, she looks south down the gentle slope toward town with its gray and white cottages, thatched roofs, and muddy lanes. The central square is gilded with strewn hay, but the outer common gardens and smaller goat pastures hold green. Long tracts of land swarm with tiny figures that are her friends and cousins, their skirts tied up or shirts stripped away while they cut the last harvest. There the creek pours out of the foothills with the mill at its strongest straight. Beyond it all the herds of sheep spread up their mountain, guarded by children and rangy dogs. Smoke snakes up from chimneys in town, and from all the scattered farmhouses too. Long curls of it even mark the Sayer and Upjohn homesteads hidden beneath the gentler, kinder forest of their mountain.
And higher up still, Sy Vaughn’s stone manor grips the mountainside like a hunting kite.
This is why she climbed the wall as a child: to see Three Graces mapped before her, to feel the warmth of recognition fill her lungs. To see her home, and its unchanging beauty, and imagine herself an intrinsic part, instead of somehow outside of it all for being a witch and a saint’s daughter. Between the town and the forest, pulled in both directions so that she can never settle down.
She has climbed the wall with Rhun and Haf and Arthur so many times. Rhun crows and spreads his arms as if to embrace the whole of it; Haf balances too carefully, compensating for her fear of falling again; Arthur walks easily, nose up, pretending not to check his steps, as if it all comes naturally to him, as if he were the best.
Where are the three of them? she wonders. Haf with her sisters, washing diapers and braiding baskets or hair or both, charging after chickens. Rhun in a field for the harvest, no doubt, in the center of all the people he can manage, laughing his hearty loud laugh that makes others mirror it. Arthur—alone, she assumes, with a cute sneer—hunting up the mountains to the south, determined to bring back a buck all on his own, or more in his brace of rabbits than any other hunter.
Or, because there’s a sick horse, everything has changed, and she knows nothing of where her friends might be.
If something is wrong with the bargain, did her father die in vain? And Baeddan Sayer, and—
Mairwen jumps to the ground, catching herself with a hand on the earth.
Her mother’s house is the farthest out of town in the north. Surrounded by a fence of logs and stone, the Grace house is two odd-shaped stories with a long wing for herbal work and a separate one-room workshop. One of the oldest local homes, its hearth is made of a single gray stone as long as a man, set down two hundred years ago by the first Graces to find themselves near the Devil’s Forest. The upper level has been added twice, once for grandchildren and again after it burned down in Mairwen’s great-grandmother’s time. In the yard they keep chickens and three milk goats, and her mother’s herb garden overgrows the rear field. A cluster of gooseberry bushes snarl over the wall near the front door.
Mair expects Aderyn to be in the yard where the herb-fire burns, stirring her iron pot for soap or charms or maybe just laundry, but instead angry steam hisses in waves where the abandoned pot has boiled over.
Just then a scream cuts through the pleasant groaning wind. It comes from inside the house.
Her bones jar with every hard step as she careens down the slope, skirts tangled around her shins until she wrenches them up and sprints through the gate into the yard. The front door gapes open and Mair flies through, stopping abruptly in the dim entrance.
A single large room of pale daub and dark wood, dominated by the hearth and kitchen space, the bottom floor is usually full of neighbors at any time of day. But now every chair and bench has been haphazardly shoved to the sides of the room and piled atop the heavy dining table, leaving a wide space of only braided rugs. In the center, Aderyn Grace and her best friend, Hetty Pugh, support the pregnant Rhos Priddy between them as the younger mother-to-be grits her teeth and moans. The three women take slow steps around the rug. Rhos pants, then strains against the grip of the older women. Aderyn says, “You’ve got to keep moving, if you can, and we’ll get you through this one and put some tea in you.”
Hetty Pugh shoves black hair out of her face. “One foot, then the other, rosebud.”
Rhos, four years older than Mairwen and only seven months into her first pregnancy, nods frantically, cheeks red, sweat darkening the sunshine curls around her face. Like the sweat turning that gray stallion black.
Mairwen hesitates, one hand on the doorframe, and reminds herself birth is difficult work even in Three Graces. She’s heard the cries, boiled water, mopped up blood. It happens here often, for the Grace heritage makes their house with its ancient hearthstone a lucky place to be born. But this is too soon.
“Mother?” Mairwen finally says, as Rhos’s breath evens out and the girl sags. Both Aderyn and Hetty turn sharply.
“Mair!” Hetty says. “Go to Nona Sayer and send her here. She might know something from outside the valley to help.”
“What’s happening?” Mairwen asks, still hovering.
Her mother slips an arm around Rhos’s wide middle and leads the girl to one of the low rocking chairs. “Rhos is having some pains, is all,” Aderyn says gently. Her dark eyes meet Mair’s, and Mair feels the lie settle in her guts. But it’s a lie for Rhos, not her. Aderyn soothes Rhos with tender fingers patting the girl’s hair. Again Mairwen is reminded of the gray horse and her own ministrations.
Unlike Aderyn’s unruffled surety, Hetty is furious. Her freckles stand out more than usual against bloodless white skin, taking years off the woman’s thirty-odd.
Mair says as calmly as she can, “Mother, I need to speak with you,” and Aderyn immediately gives Rhos over to Hetty and ushers Mairwen back into the yard.
“One of the horses is sick,” Mair says in a gasp. “And this! What does it mean?”
“I can’t know yet. Maybe nothing too much,” Aderyn answers, wiping her brow. “Go for Nona, and then up the mountain to find out if Lord Sy is home from his summer travels yet, and tell him, and bring him down.”
Mairwen goes in a swirl of skirts and tangle of fear.
• • •
RHUN SAYER PUTS DOWN HIS scythe and crouches amid the cut barley. Sun beats down on his bare, broad shoulders, and sweat mixes with field dust and bits of seed to itch along his spine and behind his ears and where the buttons of his trousers rub his stomach. All around him men and women grunt and sing “swing, child, swing” to hold on to an even rhythm. This glinting haze only happens late in the afternoons on harvest days, when the lowering sun angles exactly to light up the dust tossed high from their work.
Everyone expects Rhun to stand wide, sigh happily, and grin, to declare this day has been a good day and maybe start a new song, something rapid and merry. A tongue twister or ask-and-answer. It’s what he usually does, full of hard work and the promise of relief and hot meat and beer for dinner with his cousins and neighbors alive in the glare of low sunlight.
But Rhun isn’t paying much heed to the haze or the chanting. He narrows his gaze onto the patch of dark, bent barley that he half sliced through. The stalks are spotted with pale freckles, ringed with blackening brown. He’s never seen anything like it, but he knows in his gut this is blight. Not a thing to be blamed on beetles or grasshoppers, but disease. Like the pox that sometimes crawls through the valley, marking temporary scars on the young and old, and leaving relief behind in its wake, for here nobody dies of such things.
But some of this barley, Rhun thinks, is dead.
An unfamiliar frown pulls at his lips. Unease flickers behind it, and Rhun huffs out a breath. He needs to tell somebody, even if it’s nothing but a strange outlier patch.
“Rhun? Y’all right?” It’s Judith Heir, a woman five years older than him, as unused as the rest of them to a frown on the mouth of Rhun Sayer the Younger.
Rhun knows it, and smiles. He’s a handsome boy, seventeen, with broad shoulders and the crooked nose that runs in his father’s family, and the brown skin and odd carmine flecks in his eyes he got from his practical, cranky mother, Nona. Otherwise, he’s symmetrical and large all around, wears whatever fits him and suits his day’s task, and ties his black spiral curls into tails and clubs, never hiding his face. “Yeah, just got a crick in my shoulder,” he says. For emphasis, he rolls his right shoulder dramatically, wincing. “I think I’ll run and go get a salve from Aderyn Grace.”
“Surely,” Judith says, then mops her brow with her sleeve before hefting her scythe again.
Quickly, Rhun puts his fist around the base of some of the patchy barley and tugs it out of the earth. Hooking his scythe over a post, he strides for the witch’s house, tapping dirt off the barley roots against his thigh as he goes.
Secrets are Rhun’s least favorite thing in the world, for how they taint everything with a prickly combination of hope and fear, but he is certain that at least immediately, it’s better to keep this discovery quiet. He’ll find Mair and show her, get her take. Let her be fascinated as she always is with the rare and different, and pull him along with her enthusiasm.
Just the thought of her calms him: Mairwen Grace, the person he loves whom he is allowed to love.
Wind from the north blows in over the Devil’s Forest. Rhun glances at the darkness cradled there, a horizon of black trees undulating under the wind like an angry ocean, with distant mountains behind. He pauses. The barley in his hand tingles, or perhaps that is a tickling unease in his palms, the urge to run, run, run.
Rhun Sayer smiles a gentle, private smile, not performing anything but only for himself at the rightness of his future: Someday he’ll stand at the top of the pasture hill with the entire town, beside a bonfire, wearing the saint’s crown. And as the sun sets and the Slaughter Moon rises, he’ll be the one to dive into the forest like his cousin, and run—and likely die—for the valley. For all this goodness.
The certainty of it comforts him as much as the thought of Mairwen did.
But the wind reaches him, chilling the sweat on Rhun’s chest, and he realizes he left his shirt folded over the cart at the corner of the barley field. Awkward to knock on Aderyn Grace’s door without it, so he shifts his path toward home instead.
• • •
IN A CLEARING OF AUTUMN trees that glow under the late sun like a soothing family fire, Arthur Couch pinches the edges of fur in his fingers, right at the cuts he made at the rear ankles, and with a firm jerk, strips the entire skin off the rabbit he snared and hung.
The tearing noise satisfies him, and the skin remains whole enough for several different uses. This rabbit died fast by his knife, not breaking its neck in the trap like many do, so the tiny neck bones should be intact enough for Mairwen.
A hot flush creeps up Arthur’s pale ears at the thought of the last time he brought her bones. She tossed them into a large stinking barrel full of water and other small animal skeletons as if they weren’t a gift, as if it didn’t matter to her at all that it was him who brought them. He supposes it isn’t terribly special to bring dead things to a witch.
Wind gusts high above him, bending the trees to loom over him like interested friends, but he hardly notices.
The problem is that he wants it to matter, wants to be special still, to her. He used to be. She used to laugh at his jibes and wicked jokes; her eyes used to sparkle when his burned; she used to race with him and care as much as he did which of them won. Rhun never cared—Rhun never had to care. He’s so certainly the best boy, whatever he does is just what the best boy does, even if that’s lose a footrace to Arthur Couch. But Mairwen cared passionately. She hissed when she lost. She dared Arthur to put his hand in the forest. She smirked when he wouldn’t, yet.
It has been nearly three years since they’ve been comfortable enough together to be mean, and he misses it. He misses her with a simple ache that wakes him up at night. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with her or if he wants to set her on fire.
All he knows is why she stopped giving him her attention three years ago. Why things are tense with Rhun. Why he’s even more of an outsider than he was before.
The answer is Rhun’s secret, though, and Arthur tries to bury it deep.
But the only other thing that tugs regularly at Arthur’s thoughts is the next Slaughter Moon. Four years away. Four more years before he can show them all, the whole valley, the town, that he is not some fool ruined by his mother, that he is no liar, not weak or soft. He can be as good as Rhun. He can be the best.
Arthur looks north, toward the Devil’s Forest, though he can’t see it. His heart beats hard and his hands fist. Arthur is a tall young man, and the sort of pale that burns in the sun. He’s lanky and strong, with blond hair he saws off in chunks whenever he loses his temper. It hasn’t been longer than his jawbone since he was eleven, and the ragged aspect ruins the pretty lines of his face exactly as he wishes. That rage burning in his blood keeps him skinny no matter what he eats, hollows out his cheeks to make his blue eyes too large, too cold. Always he carries enough knives for a seven-handed monster, as well as a woodsman’s ax.
Suddenly Rhun Sayer bursts off the path from Three Graces, heading toward the Sayer homestead. Rhun sees Arthur and freezes, every handsome half-naked pound of him awkward and still as stone. Then he relaxes, forcing a smile that does not look forced. But Arthur can see it. See it and appreciate the effort, grateful at least they’re still friends.
“Arthur! I’m getting a shirt and then going to find Mair. Do you want to come?”
Gesturing at the rabbit carcass, Arthur says, “I have to cut away the best flesh to save and bury this first.”
Rhun grimaces. He’s a hunter, sure, but he prefers roasting little creatures like this whole even if it ruins the bones. “I’ll grab my shirt and meet you here.”
But Arthur’s eyes go to the clump of dying barley. “What’s that for?”
Rhun taps the barley against his thigh again, then offers it to his friend.
Arthur stares, not reaching to take it. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Disease, I think.” Rhun angles the barley to better display the dark spots. “It was a clump of them.”
Sucking in a breath so his teeth show, Arthur lifts his gaze to Rhun’s. “A momentary blight? Something to pass?”
“Usually that just blows in and out overnight, doesn’t kill. We’ll find some waterlogged or bent with weariness, but always the grass stands up again under the full sun. Today was a good day. Not too much rain.”
“This is different, then,” Arthur murmurs.
“New,” Rhun says in a hushed tone, wavering between awe and fear.
Unable to put his teeth away, Arthur smiles a rare, full-mouthed smile. “I like new things,” Arthur says.
The challenge slices away Arthur’s smile and deadens the current between them. Arthur turns fully around and steps away. His shoulders roll as he works to sooth the tight knots pulling at his spine.
To make up for it, Rhun puts his hand on Arthur’s back, firm and friendly, like any two young men might share. None of the tenderness Arthur is so afraid of.
Arthur nods, accepting the silent apology. Together they study the barley. Arthur touches the stiff yellow hairs falling around the rows of seeds. He can barely feel them against the rough pad of his finger. New is not anything they’re much familiar with in Three Graces. Different is worse—he knows it from experience. From the boys who throw flowers at him still, ask if his mama took all his skirts with her when she ran away.
“Something must be wrong with the bargain,” Arthur says with relish. He’s waited for a flaw to reveal itself for ten entire years.
Rhun’s whole face tightens. “Do you think so? I was going to ask Mair.”
“If it’s not a temporary blight—and you don’t think it is—it has to be a problem with the devil.”
Scratching at the back of his neck, Rhun looks in the direction of the Devil’s Forest, through the rows of friendly trees. “Maybe because of what happened last time?”
Both boys remember the last Slaughter Moon clearly, three years ago. It was John Upjohn they blessed and followed in a snaking dance over the fields; John who was tall and lean and fast; John who they watched vanish into the black forest. The boys remember the vigil hours, the howls from the forest, staring from a safe distance, and Lace Upjohn, who clutched her son’s tiny naming shirt to her chest as a protection charm, praying with Aderyn Grace and the sisters Pugh. They remember Mairwen as an ecstatic force between them, leaning up on her toes as if she’d be able to see farther if she were as tall as Rhun and Arthur. Grasping their shoulders in turn, back and forth. Arthur had fed off her energy, gritted his teeth impatiently; Rhun had put his arm around her waist to ground her, to comfort himself.
Too long past the harsh pink dawn John Upjohn did not emerge from the forest.
Mair had stepped forward first when she spied a sleek shadow spill from the trees. Then Rhun had seen it, and Arthur, too. Hope had pricked in Arthur’s chest, blossoming sickly as he watched seventeen-year-old John crawl his way free, one of his hands torn off.
“I never thought much about it,” Rhun says abruptly, avoiding Arthur’s look. Arthur knows why; they’d not been overly concerned by Upjohn because of what happened between them so shortly after.
“Neither did I,” Arthur admits. “But everybody will now, if this is . . .” He points at the barley.
Rhun takes a deep breath. Arthur can tell Rhun wants to touch him again, like he would touch Mair if she were present. For comfort, for reassurance. Just because he wants to. Rhun is the sort of person who needs contact with the people he loves, but he only ever avoids it around Arthur. One sign from Arthur and that will change, but Arthur doesn’t give it.
Holding on to the barley with both hands, Rhun says, “It can’t be broken. The bargain. We need it.”
“You need it, you mean.”
“No, I . . .”
Arthur huffs. “You can’t fulfill your destiny if there’s no bargain.”
“That’s not why. I . . . I don’t want the troubles from outside our valley to come here. What we do is worth it. It’s how we keep ourselves safe and well.”
“Not you,” Arthur points out. “You’ll be dead, or so changed by your run you leave, like all the surviving saints before you.”
Rhun shrugs uncomfortably. “Maybe it won’t be me.”
“It will be you,” Arthur says bitterly.
The silence between them twists into brambles.
“Unless,” Arthur says slowly, “unless something is wrong, actually wrong, and there’s a chance to change it.” The thought sparks fire at the base of Arthur’s spine, and behind his eyes, a passion Arthur usually does not allow Rhun to see.
Rhun stares at Arthur’s eyes, then mouth, then looks abruptly away.
“What if we could change it?” Arthur presses, ignoring the meaning of the glance.
“This is only one patch of diseased barley,” Rhun insists.
Arthur slides him a disbelieving eye. “Only one patch,” he repeats, hoping that maybe, maybe, in this sudden crack in the bargain there might be a place for his ambitions.
“We should take it to Mair,” Rhun says.
“Yes.” Arthur claps his hand on Rhun’s bare shoulder and takes off, skinned carcass of his kill forgotten where it hangs in the tree.
• • •
RHUN FOLLOWS AFTER, WATCHING ARTHUR’S slinking walk, the sharp thrust of his arm as he shoves branches out of his path. His friend is prickly as a cat, just as prideful, just as dangerous, just as beautiful. As always, Rhun wishes he could convince Arthur he’s good enough to do anything. He’s known Arthur his whole life—known everybody in Three Graces as long—and liked him when he was a girl, and liked him more after the secret exploded and Arthur turned all jagged and lethal and determined to prove he was the manliest of men with sneers, loneliness, and a weapon in every hand. In any other valley, Arthur would be too pointy for his own good. Here he’s tolerated because nobody is afraid his edges can do any harm.
If this is a break in the bargain and the valley is losing its safe magic, Rhun needs to find a way to fix it, so nothing bad can happen to Arthur. Or anybody. He’ll find a way. That’s what Sayers are for: keeping everyone safe. Rhun knows who he is and what he wants, so never questions why he’s widely believed to be the best. And Rhun knows Arthur will never be chosen to run, will never be able to compete, because Arthur doesn’t know anything about himself except what he is not The best can never be defined by what it’s not, he said to Arthur once. It did not go well.
As they push through the narrow footpath toward the Sayer homestead, the sun lowers enough to turn the air from bright orange to a gentle pink, dappled with warm shadows and the first evening birdsong. Woodsmoke finds Rhun’s nose, and he can’t hold on to the verge of fear any longer. The season is changing, and he loves it. He loves summer, too, and spring and winter, for every season brings different work and different things to laugh about. He sighs a great, happy sigh, loud enough Arthur hears it and glances back.
Arthur recognizes the expression on Rhun’s face and puffs a laugh. “You’re a fool,” he says fondly.
“Everything will be all right,” Rhun says. “And just as it’s supposed to be. You’ll see.”
“I could take you more seriously if you had a shirt on.”
Though it’s Rhun’s instinct to tease Arthur about how good Rhun knows his shoulders and chest look, he refrains, smiling a shrug instead.
Arthur’s eyes narrow, and he nods, leading the way again. It’s cooling, and it is a beautiful evening, but none of that matters when there’s such a troubling note of uncertainty in the form of that diseased barley. It’s amazing that Rhun, even gregarious, bighearted Rhun, could be so quickly distracted by nothing more than pretty autumn twilight.
The Sayer homestead consists of three stone buildings: a house, a barn, and a secondary house that’s mostly kitchen and storage this generation. The main house has two full stories instead of only lofts, and a strong slate roof, but the others are thatched like the cottages down in the valley. A fenced-in lawn feeds their goats and gives a walk to the chickens, but all their horses are down in the valley with the rest until the winter sets in. It’s quiet, as most of the Sayers are out helping with the harvest today. Only a thin trail of smoke slips up the chimney, trickling down to nothing as Arthur and Rhun arrive.
Together they step out of the forest into the flat yard just as a girl shoves out the front door and dashes around the back edge of the house to vanish again into the trees and farther up the mountain.
“Was that Mairwen?” Arthur asks.
“It looked like her hair,” Rhun says, disappointed she didn’t see them and stop. He starts on again, but Arthur hesitates, staring after Mairwen. Higher up the mountain from the Sayer homestead is only hunting and Lord Sy Vaughn. Mair is no hunter.
Rhun puts out his hand to open the front door, but his mother opens it first. She startles back at the sight of him, then shoulders past. “Get to town; see if you’re needed,” Nona Sayer instructs. Nona is as tall as all the Sayer men. To Rhun she passed her brown skin and coiling hair, and to her youngest the same plus a straighter nose. She was the first person from outside to settle in the valley in a generation, but since the bargain welcomed her, fast healing the bruises and starvation from her journey over the mountains, so did the people. She glares at Arthur, whom she took in when his mother ran off and his father refused him. “Same for you, boy.”
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asks, nicer than he’d have asked any other living person, because Nona always treats him like one of her rough-and-tumble boys.
Nona frowns at him, then at her actual son, measuring them up. “Rhos Priddy went into labor early, and Mairwen Grace claims a horse in the pasture is sick.”
A thrill shoots through Arthur, but for Rhun the news sinks slow and firm into his guts. “Is it the devil? Did we do something wrong?” Rhun asks. How can I fix it, Mama? is the clear subtext.
She shakes her head. “Not you, Rhun, that’s for certain. Go into town and keep folks calm. I’m going to Aderyn to help with the birthing, and we’ll send word when we can. Mairwen’s off to fetch Lord Vaughn.”
“What about me?” Arthur says. “I’m not good at keeping anyone calm.”
“Try harder,” Nona says, and that is that, for she swings her basket back into the crook of her elbow and hurries off to the north valley where the Grace house squats just a hill away from the Devil’s Forest.
“Well, damn,” Rhun murmurs.
“Try harder,” Arthur spits.
Rhun lets the barley fall from his hand. It scatters over the green grass of the yard like a blight itself.
• • •
MAIRWEN GRACE HURRIES UP THE steepest path to Lord Vaughn’s manor, for it’s also the quickest.
She knows the way, like everyone knows the way, though few have reason to visit. The Lords Vaughn often travel away from the valley, always returning for the Slaughter Moon, and sometimes for a regular winter, with trunks of books and expensive odds from the outside world. The current lord, Sy, is near thirty and unmarried. Mair has heard gossip he has a lover in the nearest city, but she is uninterested in a wedding that would force her out of her finery and into this primitive valley. Vaughn should find another, Mair thinks, or marry someone from Three Graces. The previous lord died just before John Upjohn’s run, and so Sy has presided only over that one, and Mairwen isn’t sure he has the experience to help if something is wrong with the bargain.
Mairwen clutches at roots and jutting boulders to keep her balance. Her palms are raw now, her arms ache, and her breath is harsh and cold in her throat. Mair heaves up around an uprooted tree that leans over the steep path. She’s reached the level ground upon which the manor is built into the mountain—or from it, seemingly, for the gray stone bricks were carved from the cliff peak above them.
Mair rubs her hands down her skirt to clean them and taps her heel to her toe to knock excess dirt from her boot soles. Making her way to the wide front door with its iron gate, Mair thinks of three years ago, that night she sat with John Upjohn while he sweated through nightmares and, before the sun rose, Sy Vaughn came calling.
John was only eighteen, and she thirteen, gangly and passionate and thrilled to hold his head and arm while her mother worked to stanch the slowly bleeding wrist. They tied a tourniquet above his elbow and whispered together a song of healing that was fast and encouraging, but no more than a charm. Aderyn cleaned and bound the stump, then bound the entire arm to John’s shivering chest, so the missing hand would’ve been higher than his pounding heart. All day they remained with him, dripping water and broth onto his lips, singing to him softly, drawing blessing triskeles on his arm. He slept the afternoon away, and into the night. Mairwen held him against her for hours, curled together on a nest of blankets near the wide hearthstone, staring as if she might see the impression of memories in his drawn skin, hear the devil’s laughter in his harsh breathing, feel the chill of fear and exhilaration in the echoes of pain cut into his wince. She was desperate to know what he’d seen—had he seen her father’s bones? Did he understand things about the forest she could not? Did he have answers for her? She longed to whisper her thoughts into his ear and wait for the response however it might come.
His strong body shook with nightmares; he cried hot, sticky tears; he held on to her with his remaining hand, clutching her ribs or twining his fingers in her tangled hair. She’d dozed, finally, cheek on John’s shoulder. Her sleeping had been dreamless, a sleep of sweet exhaustion, but John’s had been terrible. His feet twitched as if he’d never stopped running, and he panted hard.
The Grace door slammed opened and a dark figure strode in. John Upjohn woke with a cry, and Mairwen threw herself across him, between the saint and this new danger.
The figure wore a trailing black cloak with the cowl pulled around his face—if he had a face—and he stood leaning sideways, one gloved hand pressed to the blackened end of a walking stick that shone in the moonlight like a knife.
Mairwen said, “You will not take the rest of him, too, devil!”
Silence swept through the house, and the silvery moonlight cast everything gray but for the blood seeping through the bandage of John Upjohn’s raw wrist.
The figure pushed back his cowl to reveal a square, pale face and curling brown hair. He said, “It is only Sy Vaughn, brave girl.”
She relaxed slightly, but kept herself before John like a guardian spirit. “You can’t have him either,” she said.
And Sy Vaughn smiled, amusement tucked into the corners. He studied Mairwen Grace, thirteen and weedy and small, bent around the injured saint, staring at him with her mother’s brown eyes. He stepped nearer, then crouched beside her. He tugged off his glove to touch her freckled cheek with a bare finger, and lowered his eyes to the saint.
John Upjohn lifted his chin with the last thread of his courage and said, “I survived.”
“So you did, John. And I want you to know: My family has offered money to all the survivors, if you wish to leave the valley, if you find it too rough surviving still, this near the forest.”
Mairwen knew this. She’d heard it from her mother, and knew all four survivors in the past two hundred years had taken the offer and left Three Graces forever, as if once a boy ran through the Devil’s Forest, he could not be contained by the valley.
“No. You can’t leave,” she whispered.
And John agreed. “I’d drag the forest with me wherever I went. I feel it . . . too strongly.”
“Here,” Aderyn Grace said gently from her bedroom door, “you might never be happy. The memories, the nightmares . . .”
“I know,” John said.
“That’s not true.” Mair turned and put her hands on his face. “There are cures for nightmares, and you’re the best, John.”
Mair leaned up onto her knees. “You’re the saint, always and forever. My father . . .” She could say no more, but John Upjohn seemed to understand.
“I’ll try,” he promised wearily, “for the daughter of Carey Morgan.”
“None have survived and stayed,” the lord said, studying not John, but Mairwen. She studied him back, staring at his face, warm and sunny even in these shadows.
“Please,” she said, “let him stay.”
With no word, the lord stood and went to Aderyn. Vaughn touched the back of Aderyn’s hand. “Keep him alive, then, Grace witch,” he said, and swept out.
Mairwen did not sleep again that night, though her mother refused to acknowledge anything odd had occurred, and John curled back again into the blanket nest, head tucked into Mairwen’s warm embrace.
She can’t help but think of it now, as she drags at the iron gate of the manor with all her weight, because it’s three years since the last Slaughter Moon and the bargain is failing. The only change she knows of is John Upjohn both surviving and staying.
At her urging. At her plea.
And Rhun Sayer might pay the price of it, too soon.
The iron squeals open and she pounds on the cold wooden door with her fist. “Lord Vaughn!” she yells. “Are you here? You’re needed! My mother, Aderyn Grace, sent me!”
Her words echo around the stone archway. Mair waits, pressing her back to the door. The manor shelters her from wind, and she can see the southern edges of the sunset against the mountain slope, and far beyond it, the next mountain all green dark shadow and lightning-strike of white peak. Beyond that, she imagines another peak and another, in a long string of mountain range, or if she sends her thoughts even farther, the plains of farmland they’re told lead to a vast river and the first of the great cities. Sometimes in the spring, a cart and horse makes its way along the narrow passages through these mountains to their valley, led by a trader who knows Lord Vaughn’s name, and they tell stories of the cities and kings and vast church government. Less often, a person stumbles into Three Graces to stay, like Rhun’s mother. Refugees or orphans or folk seeking they’re never sure exactly what, until they land here. Even more rarely a person leaves, never to return.
Mairwen’s mother says someday Arthur Couch will leave, because he burns too hot for Three Graces. But Mair suspects Arthur burns too hot for all the world. She can imagine him, though, far away from here, past those large mountains and surrounded by others to fight.
The thought of him gone sours her tongue.
It strikes her how quiet it is here at the lord’s manor: unlike every step of the valley, where you can hear birdsong or the clang of Braith Bowen’s hammer and anvil or complaining sheep at all times. Even at night, the wind seems to chitter and chat.
But here it’s silent.
Perhaps Vaughn has not come home, because it’s not supposed to be a saint year. Perhaps he reclines in an elegant city house, with oranges and fancy wine, with that lover of his, reading a book and not thinking at all that he’s needed here four years early. But no—she saw smoke lift off his chimney this afternoon.
Against the small of her back, the handle twitches as someone on the other side unlocks it.
Whirling, she’s ready when the door pushes out, and there stands the lord in elegant black with his face clear toward the sun. It catches his miscolored eyes, making them clear as glass.
Vaughn slides away to allow Mairwen entrance to the small foyer. She does, and he quickly shuts them into darkness. The only light comes from the hallway to her left, just a flicker of fire.
“Lord Vaughn,” she says, offering an awkward curtsy.
“Mairwen Grace,” he says, smooth and relaxed. “Welcome to my home.”
He sweeps past her and leads her toward the firelight.
The hallway is broad enough for two abreast and built with no windows and the candle alcoves are empty. Some tapestries warm the walls, dark, bold floral patterns woven into them. Vaughn takes her past two closed doors and then down three shallow stairs into a warm room with wooden rafters and limewash to brighten the walls. The shutters on two tall windows are drawn, but a small fire burns in the great wide hearth she remembers from her visits with Aderyn. A wingback chair rests near the fire, surrounded by stacks of books, and she spies a small writing desk and an entire shelf of ink bottles and pens.
“Sit if you will,” he instructs, pointing at a three-legged stool with a velvety cushion, then at a small sofa with gilded legs shaped like talons. She perches on the stool with her hands on her knees, glad not to feel uncomfortable or strange in his lovely room.
Vaughn sits in his wingback chair and stares at her. Still handsome, despite the oddness of his eyes: one dark brown and one gray. His long fingers curl around the green arms of the chair, adorned by only one ring: a silver band gripping three black gemstones.
She draws a breath and says, “There’s a sick horse in the field and Rhos Priddy went into early labor. My mother sent me to fetch you, for it seems there’s something wrong with the bargain.”
He nods, resting back so his face half disappears in the shadow thrown by the wing of the chair. The fire crackles, and Mair hears her pulse suddenly in her ears, but nothing else.
“You aren’t surprised! Did you know? Is that why you returned this year?”
“I come home nearly every year. It is difficult to stay away, knowing outside the valley anything might happen to me and I will not be healed.”
“Oh.” Mairwen tries to calm down. She nearly asks what it’s like, outside, but that is what Arthur would ask. If she truly wished to know, she’d have had answers from Nona Sayer years ago. Mairwen only cares what is deeper inside the valley.
Vaughn sighs. He said, “But I am not surprised. Not entirely.”
Excitement pushes Mair to lean forward. “Why?”
“Because of John.”
“He met the rules of the bargain.”
“That we know of. No saint has done as he did, surviving but leaving a piece of himself in the forest.”
“I can go into the forest, sir, and find what’s gone wrong.”
The lord’s eyebrows lift and he smiles, which brings a sharpness to his cheeks and reminds Mairwen of someone, though she cannot think who.
“I’m not afraid,” she says. Then puts fists upon her knees. “No, I am, but not more afraid than I am courageous enough to do it. And willing.”
Vaughn reaches for the nearest pile of books without looking away from Mairwen and flips open the top book to reveal a hollow cutout. Nestled inside is a small curved pipe. The lord lifts it out and taps the mouthpiece to his lower lip, but doesn’t move to fill or light it. “Being a witch does not mean you would be welcomed instead of torn to pieces within the first hour.”
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.’”
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.