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About the Author

Copyright Page

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FOR ALTHEA AND ROWAN—MY STORIES, MY HEART

This book is also dedicated to allll the many little (or somewhat grown) denizens of my family forest, including, but certainly not limited to: Oliver R., Anjuli, Colin, Solveig, Aylin, Nicco, Etta, Amanda, Olivia, Maya, Brooks, Raiel, Ava, Layla, Lucas, Caden, Oliver B., Katie, Addie, Savanah, Harmony, Cypress, Liam, Eleanor, Melanie, Malachi, Mathias, Marcus, Breaunah, Natasha, Milla, Peja, Bayla, Kiara, Jakobi, Taylia, and Zekai.

ONCE UPON A TIME

The twins—one boy and one girl—sat beneath the thick wooden table, listening. Rain pattered against the windows, and the fire crackled in front of their father as he carved a new ward to sit on Governor Gale’s roof beam. The thin curls of wood flipped themselves neatly into the hearth as he worked. Their mother stood next to him in the firelight as they spoke in clipped whispers.

“They say he walked right out of his house last night,” the girl heard her mother say.

Their father said nothing, but his mouth tightened and another curl of wood whipped itself into the fire.

“He was a good man—a good neighbor.”

Their mother wiped her eyes on her sleeves. “He never went into the wood. He kept his wards strong.”

The girl swallowed. She hadn’t known Mr. Chaten well, but he had once brought a stew to share with them when her father was gone to Trader’s Hollow.

“What was it?” their father asked, and the girl’s heart quailed at the anger in his low voice.

“Governor Gale thinks the malediction took the shape of a fork. Just … just a plain fork.”

Their father sighed and let the carving fall to his lap. He turned to their mother and took her hands. “Such a simple thing. Did he bring it inside? Did he use it?”

Her mother nodded, and the girl could feel the tickle of her brother’s breath near her ear, listening with her.

“Uprooted it in his own field,” their mother choked. “It could have been us, Rob. He thought it was his own. He laughed with Talon about it last night at the inn—how he’d grown careless in his old age.”

“And—”

“And—this morning he was gone. Walked into the Grimwood on his own two feet in the night.”

Their father turned back to his carving. Another flick of his knife. Another curl of wood hissing in the fire. “He won’t be back.”

“No. He won’t be back.”

“Any pickers?”

“Not that anyone saw. Only footprints.”

The girl’s brother shifted next to her. “I bet the pickers come tonight,” the boy said in her ear, making the hair on her neck rise. His dark curls, a perfect match to hers, caught the light. “I bet you picked up a malediction and didn’t even know it, just like Mr. Chaten—some little thing by the river—and tonight the pickers will walk through the Hollows with their stick bodies and their tiny heads, and their scrabbling legs. They’ll tap at your window and call you out to follow them into the Grimwood.”

“They will not!” The girl scowled as she sat up and crossed her arms. The two looked alike in every way—dark curls, dark eyes, and skin the color of gingerbread—the same shade as the pale brown earth under their fingernails. She was, perhaps, a bit smaller, a little thinner in the face—but perhaps not.

“Anyway, the pickers would never take me,” she hissed at him. “Mother says I’m too ornery to feed to the thorn trees. But I bet the faeries will take you in the night.” A gleam came into her eyes. “Their queen will come knocking. Mother won’t even mind. She’ll let them through the wards, and they’ll take you away in chains.”

The boy’s face fell. Tears filled his eyes. A flash of remorse flew across the girl’s face. Her brother was full of clever thoughts and bright plans, but the sharp edge of his imagination cut two ways. He was too quick to believe. She took his hand. “They won’t really, Peter,” she whispered, unable to meet his eyes.

They watched their mother’s feet, silent in green wool house shoes, as she moved across the worn floor to open the front door of the cottage. The pensive blues of nightfall spilled into the room like the finest faery silk. “See,” the girl insisted. “Mother’s setting the wards now.”

They peeked together out from under the table as their mother placed their protective ward gently on its post outside the door. The gruesome witch, with her twiggy carved hair and sharp teeth would keep away real witches—and other horrors they couldn’t name. Then their mother sprinkled salt and iron shavings at their doorstep and held up the small bell, ringing it to set the wards. “Many are the roots,” she sang. “Many are the eyes. Pass us by. Pass us by. Pass us by.” Her words rang like the bell, over the top of their neighbors’ voices as they did the same, their many voices and bells folding into a singsong. Pass us by. Pass us by.

The boy shivered, and grabbed his sister’s other hand. “Say the rhyme with me, Mags.”

Her smile could have warmed a stone. She turned to face him, both cross-legged, and met his eyes. Their voices pitched just over a whisper as the scent of warm bread filled the room.

Stay away from the Grimwood, child. Stay away from the fog. Stay away from the thorn trees, child. Stay away from the bog. Keep the promise. Rue the day. The Grimwood is

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