The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

"Exquisite character work, an elaborate mythology, and a spectacularly rendered universe make this a noteworthy debut, which argues passionately against fascism and xenophobia."
--Publishers Weekly, starred review


Prologue

The woods are beautiful.

They’re my friends, the trees, and I can feel them smiling down at me.

I skip along, kicking at dry pine needles, singing to myself, following close at the heels of my beloved uncle Edwin, who turns every so often, smiles and encourages me to follow.

I am three years old.

We have never walked so far into the woods, and the thrill of adventure lights up my insides. In fact, we hardly ever walk into the woods. And Uncle Edwin has brought only me. He’s left my brothers at home, far away.

I scramble to keep up with him, leaping over curved roots, dodging low-hanging branches.

We finally stop in a sunny clearing deep in the forest.

“Here, Elloren,” my uncle says. “I have something for you.” He bends down on one knee, pulls a stick from his cloak pocket and presses it into my tiny fist.

A present!

It’s a special stick—light and airy. I close my eyes, and an image of the tree the stick came from enters my mind—a big, branchy tree, soaked in sunlight and anchored in sand.

I open my eyes and bounce the stick up and down in my hand. It’s as light as a feather.

My uncle fishes a candle out of his pants pocket, gets up and sets the candle on a nearby stump before returning to me. “Hold the stick like this, Elloren,” he says gently as he bends down and holds his hand around mine.

I look at him with slight worry.

Why is his hand trembling?

I grasp onto the stick harder, trying my best to do what he wants.

“That’s it, Elloren,” he says patiently. “Now I’m going to ask you to say some funny words. Can you do that?”

I nod emphatically. Of course I can. I’d do anything for my uncle Edwin.

He says the words. There are only a few of them, and I feel proud and happy again. Even though they’re in another language and sound strange to my ears, they’re easy to say.

I will do a good job, and he will hug me and maybe even give me some of the molasses cookies I saw him tuck away into his vest before we left home.

I hold my arm out, straight and true, and aim my featherstick at the candle, just like he told me. I can feel him right behind me, watching me closely, ready to see how well I listened.

I open my mouth and start to speak the nonsense words.

As the odd words roll off my tongue, something warm and rumbling pulls up into my legs, right up from the ground beneath my feet.

Something from the trees.

A powerful energy shoots through me and courses toward the stick. My hand jerks hard and there’s a blinding flash. An explosion. Fire shooting from the tip of the stick. The trees around us suddenly engulfed in flames. Fire everywhere. The sound of my own screaming. The trees screaming in my head. The terrifying roar of fire. The stick roughly pulled from my hands and quickly cast aside. My uncle grabbing me up, holding me tight to his chest and racing away from the fire as the forest falls apart around us.


Things change for me in the forest after that.

I can feel the trees pulling away, making me uneasy. And I begin to avoid the wild places.

Over time, the childhood memory becomes cloudy.

“It’s just a dream,” my uncle says, comforting me, when the burning scene returns in the dark of sleep. “About that time you wandered out into the forest. During that lightning storm. Think on pleasant things, and go back to sleep.”

And so I believe him, because he cares for me and has never given me a reason not to believe.

Even the forest seems to echo his words. Go back to sleep, the leaves rustle on the wind. And over time, the memory fades, like a stone falling to the bottom of a deep, dark well.

 

Into the realm of shadowy nightmares.

Fourteen years later…

Chapter One

Halfix

I open my eyes, dissolving the image, focusing back in on the demon toy’s orange eyes. I fight the urge to envision the tree once more, but I know better than to entertain this odd quirk of mine.

Often, if I close my eyes while holding a piece of wood, I can get the full sense of its source tree. With startling detail. I can see the tree’s birthplace, smell the rich, loamy carpet beneath its roots, feel the sun dappling its outstretched leaves.

Of course, I’ve learned to keep these imaginings to myself.

A strange nature fixation like this smacks of Fae blood, and Uncle Edwin has warned me to never speak of it. We Gardnerians are a pure-blooded race, free from the stain of the heathen races that surround us. And my family line has the strongest, purest Mage blood of all.

But I often worry. If that’s true, then why do I see these things?

“You should be more careful with your toys,” I gently scold the boys as I shake off the lingering image of the tree and set the figure down.

The sound of the boys’ grand battles recedes into the distance as I near the small cottage I share with Uncle Edwin and my two brothers. I peer across the broad field toward our horse stables and give a start.

A large, elegant carriage is parked there. The crest of the Mage Council, Gardneria’s highest level of government, is artfully painted on its side—a golden M styled with graceful, looping calligraphy.

Four military guards, real-life versions of Emmet and Brennan’s toys, sit eating some food. They’re strapping soldiers, dressed in black tunics with silver spheres marking their chests, with wands and swords at their sides.

It has to be my aunt’s carriage—it can’t possibly be anyone else’s. My aunt is a member of our ruling High Mage Council, and she always travels with an armed entourage.

A rush of excitement flashes through me, and I quicken my pace, wondering what on all of Erthia could have possibly brought my powerful aunt to remote Halfix, of all places.

I haven’t seen her since I was five years old.

 

We lived near her back then, in Valgard, Gardneria’s bustling port city and capital. But we hardly ever saw her.

One day, clear out of the blue, my aunt appeared in the front room of my uncle’s violin shop.

“Have you had the children wandtested?” she inquired, her tone light, but her eyes sharp as ice.

I remember how I tried to hide behind Uncle Edwin, clinging to his tunic, mesmerized by the elegant creature before me.

“Of course, Vyvian,” my uncle haltingly answered his sister. “Several times over.”

I looked up at my uncle with confused surprise. I had no memory of being wandtested, even though I knew that all Gardnerian children were.

“And what did you find?” she asked probingly.

“Rafe and Elloren are powerless,” he told her as he shifted slightly, cutting off my view of Aunt Vyvian, casting me in shadows. “But Trystan. The boy has some magic in him.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Vyvian, quite.”

And that was when she began to visit with us.

Soon after, my uncle unexpectedly soured on city life.

Without warning, he whisked my brothers and me away to where we now live. In tiny Halfix. At the very northeastern edge of Gardneria.

Right in the middle of nowhere.

 

As I round the corner of our cottage, I hear the sound of my name through the kitchen window and skid to a stop.

“Elloren is not a child anymore, Edwin.” My aunt’s voice drifts out.

I set my basket of vegetables and herbs on the ground and crouch low.

“She is too young for wandfasting,” comes my uncle’s attempt at a firm reply, a tremor of nervousness in his voice.

Wandfasting? My heart speeds up. I know that most Gardnerian girls my age are already wandfasted—magically bound to young men for life. But we’re so isolated here, surrounded by the mountains. The only girl I know who’s been fasted is Sage, and she’s up and disappeared.

“Seventeen is the traditional age.” My aunt sounds slightly exasperated.

“I don’t care if it’s the traditional age,” my uncle persists, his tone gaining confidence. “It’s still too young. She can’t possibly know what she wants at this age. She’s seen nothing of the world…”

“Because you let her see nothing of it.”

My uncle makes a sound of protest but my aunt cuts him off. “No, Edwin. What happened to Sage Gaffney should be a wake-up call for all of us. Let me take Elloren under my wing. I’ll introduce her to all the best young men. And after she is safely fasted to one of them, I’ll apprentice her with the Mage Council. You must start to take her future seriously.”

“I do take her future seriously, Vyvian, but she is still much too young to have it decided for her.”

“Edwin.” There’s a note of challenge in my aunt’s smooth voice. “You will force me to take matters into my own hands.”

“You forget, Vyvian,” my uncle counters, “that I am the eldest male of the family, and as such, I have the final say on all matters concerning Elloren, and when I am gone, it will be Rafe, not you, who will have the final say.”

My eyebrows fly up at this. I can tell my uncle is treading on thin ice if he has decided to resort to this argument—an argument I know he doesn’t actually agree with. He’s always grousing about how unfair the Gardnerian power structure is toward women, and he’s right. Few Gardnerian women have wand magic, my powerful grandmother being a rare exception. Almost all of our powerful Mages are men, our magic passing more easily along male lines. This makes our men the rulers in the home and over the land.

But Uncle Edwin thinks our people take this all too far: no wands for women, save with Council approval; ultimate control of a family always given to the eldest male; and our highest position in government, the office of High Mage, can only be held by a man. And then there’s my uncle’s biggest issue by far—the wandfast-binding of our women at increasingly younger ages.

“You will not be able to shelter her forever,” my aunt insists.

“What will happen when you are gone someday, and all the suitable men have already been wandfasted?”

“What will happen is that she will have the means to make her own way in the world.”

My aunt laughs at this. Even her laugh is graceful. It makes me think of a pretty waterfall. I wish I could laugh like that. “And how, exactly, would she ‘make her own way in the world’?”

“I’ve decided to send her to University.” I involuntarily suck in as much air as I can and hold it there, not able to breathe, too shocked to move. The pause in their conversation tells me that my aunt is probably having the same reaction.

Verpax University. With my brothers. In another country altogether. A dream I never imagined could actually come true.

“Send her there for what?” my aunt asks, horrified.

“To learn the apothecary trade.”

A giddy, stunned joy wells up inside me. I’ve been begging Uncle Edwin for years to send me. Hungry for something more than our small library and homegrown herbs. Passionately envious of Trystan and Rafe, who get to study there.

Verpax University. In Verpacia’s bustling capital city. With its apothecary laboratories and greenhouses. The fabled Gardnerian Athenaeum overflowing with books. Apothecary materials streaming into Verpacia’s markets from East and West, the country a central trade route.

My mind spins with the exciting possibilities.

“Oh, come now, Vyvian,” my uncle reasons. “Don’t look so put out. The apothecary sciences are a respectable trade for women, and it suits Elloren’s quiet, bookish nature more than the Mage Council ever could. Elloren loves her gardens, making medicines and so forth. She’s quite good at it.”

An uncomfortable silence ensues.

“You have left me with no alternative but to take a firm stand on this,” my aunt says, her voice gone low and hard.

“You realize that I cannot put one guilder toward Elloren’s University tithe while she is unfasted.”

“I expected as much,” my uncle states coolly. “Which is why I have arranged for Elloren to pay her tithe through kitchen labor.”

“This is unheard of!” my aunt exclaims. Her voice turns tight and angry. “You’ve raised these children like they’re Keltic peasants,” she snipes, “and frankly, Edwin, it’s disgraceful.

You’ve forgotten who we are. I have never heard of a Gardnerian girl, especially one of Elloren’s standing, from such a distinguished family, laboring in a kitchen. That’s work for Urisk, for Kelts, not for a girl such as Elloren. Her peers at University will be shocked.”

I jump in fright as something large bumps into me. I turn as my older brother, Rafe, plops down by my side, grinning widely.

“Surprise you, sis?”

It’s beyond me how someone so tall and strapping can move as quietly as a cat. I imagine his extraordinary stealth comes from all the time he spends wandering the wilds and hunting. He’s clearly just back from a hunt, his bow and quiver slung over one shoulder, a dead goose hanging upside down over the other.

I shoot my brother a stern look and hold up a finger to shush him. Aunt Vyvian and Uncle Edwin have resumed their wandfasting argument.

Rafe raises his eyebrows in curiosity, still smiling, and tilts his head toward the window. “Ah,” he whispers, bumping his shoulder into mine in camaraderie. “They’re talking about your romantic future.”

“You missed the best part,” I whisper back. “Earlier they were talking about how you would be my lord and master when Uncle Edwin is gone.”

Rafe chuckles. “Yeah, and I’m going to start my ironfisted rule by having you do all my chores for me. Especially dishwashing.”

I roll my eyes at him.

“And I’m going to have you wandfasted to Gareth.” He continues to bait me.

My eyes and mouth fly open. Gareth, our good friend since childhood, is like a brother to me. I have no romantic interest in him whatsoever.

“What?” Rafe laughs. “You could do a lot worse, you know.” Something just over my shoulder catches his eye, and his smile broadens. “Oh, look who’s here. Hello,

Gareth, Trystan.”

Trystan and Gareth have rounded the cottage’s corner and are approaching us. I catch Gareth’s eye, and immediately he flushes scarlet and takes on a subdued, self-conscious expression.

I am mortified. He obviously heard Rafe’s teasing.

Gareth is a few years older than me at twenty, broad and sturdy with dark green eyes and black hair like the rest of us. But there’s one notable difference: Gareth’s black hair has a trace of silver highlights in it—very unusual in Gardnerians, and read by many as a sign of his less-than-pure blood. It’s been the source of relentless teasing all throughout his life. “Mongrel,” “Elfling” and “Fae blood” are just a few of the names the other children called him. The son of a ship captain, Gareth stoically endured the teasing and often found solace with his father at sea. Or here, with us. An uncomfortable flush heats my face. I love Gareth like a brother. But I certainly don’t want to fast to him.

“What are you doing?” my younger brother, Trystan, asks, confused to see Rafe and me crouched down under the window.

“We’re eavesdropping,” Rafe whispers cheerfully.

“Why?”

“Ren here’s about to be fasted off,” Rafe answers.

“I am not,” I counter, grimacing at Rafe, then look back up at Trystan, giddy happiness welling up. I break out into a grin. “But I am going to University.”

Trystan cocks an eyebrow in surprise. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope,” Rafe answers jovially.

Trystan eyes me with approval. I know my quiet, studious younger brother loves the University. Trystan’s the only one of us with magical power, but he’s also a talented bow maker and fletcher. At only sixteen years of age, he’s already been pre-accepted into the Gardnerian Weapons

Guild and apprenticed with the military.

“That’s great, Ren,” Trystan says. “We can eat meals together.”

Rafe shushes Trystan with mock severity and motions toward the window.

Humoring us, Trystan bends his wiry frame and crouches down. Looking ill at ease, Gareth does the same.

“You’re wrong, Edwin. You can’t possibly send her to University without wandfasting her to someone first.” My aunt’s domineering tone is beginning to fray at the edges.

“Why?” my uncle challenges her. “Her brothers are unfasted. And Elloren’s not a fool.”

“Sage Gaffney wasn’t a fool, either,” my aunt cautions, her tone dark. “You know as well as I do that they let in all manner of unsuitable types: Kelts, Elfhollen…they even have two Icarals this year. Yes, Edwin, Icarals.”

My eyes fly up at this. Icaral demons! Attending University? How could that even be possible? Keltic peasants and Elfhollen half-breeds are one thing, but Icarals! Alarmed,

I look to Rafe, who simply shrugs.

“It’s not surprising, really,” my aunt comments, her voice disgusted. “The Verpacian Council is full of half-breeds. As is most of the University’s hierarchy. They mandate an absurd level of integration, and, quite frankly, it’s dangerous.” She gives a frustrated sigh. “Marcus Vogel will clean up the situation once he’s named High Mage.”

If, Vyvian,” my uncle tersely counters. “Vogel may not win.”

“Oh, he’ll win,” my aunt crows. “His support is growing.”

“I really don’t see how any of this pertains to Elloren,” my uncle cuts in, uncharacteristically severe.

“It pertains to Elloren because the potential is there for her to be drawn into a wildly unsuitable romantic alliance, one that could destroy her future and reflect badly on the entire family. Now, if she was wandfasted, like almost all Gardnerian girls her age, she could safely attend University—”

“Vyvian,” my uncle persists, “I’ve made up my mind about this. I’m not going to change it.”

Silence.

“Very well.” My aunt sighs with deep disapproval. “I can see you are quite decided at present, but at least let her spend the next week or so with me. It makes perfect sense, as Valgard is on the way from here to the University.”

“All right,” he capitulates wearily.

“Well,” she says, her tone brightening, “I’m glad that’s settled. Now, if my niece and nephews would kindly stop crouching under the window and come in and join us, it would be lovely to see everyone.”

Gareth, Trystan and I give a small start.

Rafe turns to me, raises his eyebrows and grins.


Critics are raving about Laurie Forest's incredible debut, The Black Witch:

"I absolutely loved The Black Witch and will have a very hard time waiting for the second book! Maximum suspense, unusual magic--a whole new, thrilling approach to fantasy!"
--Tamora Pierce, #1 New York Times bestselling author

"The Black Witch is a refreshing, powerful young adult fantasy. This strong debut offers an uncompromising glimpse of world-altering politics amplified by a magical setting in which prejudice and discrimination cut both ways."
--Robin Hobb, New York Times bestselling author

"Elloren learns to question authority and Gardnerian history, while developing real empathy for different races and species. Forest uses a richly imagined magical world to offer an uncompromising condemnation of prejudice and injustice."
--Booklist, starred review

"This briskly paced, tightly plotted novel enacts the transformative power of education, creating engaging characters set in a rich alternative universe with a complicated history that can help us better understand our own."
--Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Coming June 2017!

Find out more. 

Home Page Bottom Banner