The Darkest Part of the Forest (Excerpt)

Hazel lives with her brother, Ben, in the strange town of Fairfold where humans and fae exist side by side. The faeries’ seemingly harmless magic attracts tourists, but Hazel knows how dangerous they can be, and she knows how to stop them. Or she did, once.

At the center of it all, there is a glass coffin in the woods. It rests right on the ground and in it sleeps a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointy as knives. Hazel and Ben were both in love with him as children. The boy has slept there for generations, never waking. Until one day, he does…

As the world turns upside down and a hero is needed to save them all, Hazel tries to remember her years spent pretending to be a knight. But swept up in new love, shifting loyalties, and the fresh sting of betrayal, will it be enough?

Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest publishes January 15th from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers! Check out an exclusive excerpt below!

 

 

 

Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.

As far as Hazel Evans knew, from what her parents said to her and from what their parents said to them, he’d always been there. And no matter what anyone did, he never, ever woke up.

He didn’t wake up during the long summers, when Hazel and her brother, Ben, stretched out on the full length of the coffin, staring down through the crystalline panes, fogging them up with their breath, and scheming glorious schemes. He didn’t wake up when tourists came to gape or debunkers came to swear he wasn’t real. He didn’t wake up on autumn weekends, when girls danced right on top of him, gyrating to the tinny sounds coming from nearby iPod speakers, didn’t notice when Leonie Wallace lifted her beer high over her head, as if she were saluting the whole haunted forest. He didn’t so much as stir when Ben’s best friend, Jack Gordon, wrote in case of emergency, break glass in Sharpie along one side—or when Lloyd Lindblad took a sledgehammer and actually tried. No matter how many parties had been held around the horned boy—generations of parties, so that the grass sparkled with decades of broken bottles in green and amber, so that the bushes shone with crushed aluminum cans in silver and gold and rust—and no matter what happened at those parties, nothing could wake the boy inside the glass coffin.

When they were little, Ben and Hazel made him flower crowns and told him stories about how they would rescue him. Back then, they were going to save everyone who needed saving in Fairfold. Once Hazel got older, though, she mostly visited the coffin only at night, in crowds, but she still felt something tighten in her chest when she looked down at the boy’s strange and beautiful face.

She hadn’t saved him, and she hadn’t saved Fairfold, either.

“Hey, Hazel,” Leonie called, dancing to one side to make room in case Hazel wanted to join her atop the horned boy’s casket. Doris Alvaro was already up there, still in her cheerleader outfit from the game their school lost earlier that night, shining chestnut ponytail whipping through the air. They both looked flushed with alcohol and good cheer.

Waving a hello to Leonie, Hazel didn’t get up on the coffin, although she was tempted. Instead she threaded her way through the crowd of teenagers.

Fairfold High was a small-enough school that although there were cliques (even if a few were made up of basically a single person, like how Megan Rojas was the entire Goth community), everyone had to party together if they wanted to have enough people around to party at all. But just because everyone partied together, it didn’t mean they were all friends. Until a month ago, Hazel had been part of a girl posse, striding through school in heavy eyeliner and dangling, shining earrings as sharp as their smiles. Sworn in sticky, bright blood sucked from thumbs to be friends forever. She’d drifted away from them after Molly Lipscomb asked her to kiss and then jilt Molly’s ex, but was furious with her once she had.

It turned out that Hazel’s other friends were really just Molly’s friends. Even though they’d been part of the plan, they pretended they weren’t. They pretended something had happened that Hazel ought to be sorry about. They wanted Hazel to admit that she’d done it to hurt Molly.

Hazel kissed boys for all kinds of reasons—because they were cute, because she was a little drunk, because she was bored, because they let her, because it was fun, because they looked lonely, because it blotted out her fears for a while, because she wasn’t sure how many kisses she had left. But she’d kissed only one boy who really belonged to someone else, and under no circumstances would she ever do it again.

At least she still had her brother to hang out with, even if he was currently on a date in the city with some guy he’d met online. And she had Ben’s best friend, Jack, even if he made her nervous. And she had Leonie.

That was plenty of friends. Too many, really, considering that she was likely to disappear one of these days, leaving them all behind.

Thinking that way was how she’d wound up not asking anyone for a ride to the party that night, even though it meant walking the whole way, through the shallow edge of the woods, past farms and old tobacco barns, and then into the forest.

It was one of those early fall nights when wood smoke was in the air, along with the sweet richness of kicked-up leaf mold, and everything felt possible. She was wearing a new green sweater, her favorite brown boots, and a pair of cheap green enamel hoops. Her loose red curls still had a hint of summer gold, and when she’d looked in the mirror to smear on a little bit of tinted ChapStick before she walked out the door, she actually thought she looked pretty good.

Liz was in charge of the playlist, broadcasting from her phone through the speakers in her vintage Fiat, choosing dance music so loud it made the trees shiver. Martin Silver was chatting up Lourdes and Namiya at the same time, clearly hoping for a best-friend sandwich that was never, ever, ever going to happen. Molly was laughing in a half circle of girls. Stephen, in his paint-spattered shirt, was sitting on his truck with the headlights on, drinking Franklin’s dad’s moonshine from a flask, too busy nursing some private sorrow to care whether the stuff would make him go blind. Jack was sitting over with his brother (well, kind of his brother), Carter, the quarterback, on a log near the glass coffin. They were laughing, which made Hazel want to go over there and laugh with them, except that she also wanted to get up and dance, and she also wanted to run back home.

“Hazel,” someone said, and she turned to see Robbie Delmonico. The smile froze on her face.

“I haven’t seen you around. You look nice.” He seemed resentful about it.

“Thanks.” Robbie had to know she’d been avoiding him, which made her feel like an awful person, but ever since they’d made out at a party, he’d followed her around as though he was heartbroken, and that was even worse. She hadn’t dumped him or anything like that; he’d never even asked her out. He just stared at her miserably and asked weird, leading questions, such as “What are you doing after school?” And when she told him, “Nothing, just hanging out,” he never suggested anything else, never even proposed he might like to come over.

It was because of kissing boys like Robbie Delmonico that people believed Hazel would kiss anyone.

It really had seemed like a good idea at the time.

“Thanks,” she said again, slightly more loudly, nodding. She began to turn away.

“Your sweater’s new, right?” And he gave her that sad smile that seemed to say that he knew he was nice for noticing and that he knew nice guys finished last.

The funny thing was that he hadn’t seemed particularly interested in her before she lunged at him. It was as though, by putting her lips to his—and, okay, allowing a certain amount of handsiness—she’d transformed herself into some kind of cruel goddess of love.

“It is new,” she told him, nodding again. Around him, she felt as coldhearted as he clearly thought she was. “Well, I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah,” he said, letting the word linger.

And then, at the critical moment, the moment when she meant to just walk away, guilt overtook her and she said the one thing she knew she shouldn’t say, the thing for which she would kick herself over and over again throughout the night. “Maybe we’ll run into each other later.”

Hope lit his eyes, and, too late, she realized how he’d taken it— as a promise. But by then all she could do was hightail it over to Jack and Carter.

Jack—the crush of Hazel’s younger, sillier years—looked surprised when she stumbled up, which was odd, because he was almost never caught off guard. As his mother once said about him, Jack could hear the thunder before the lightning bothered to strike.

“Hazel, Hazel, blue of eye. Kissed the boys and made them cry,” Carter said, because Carter could be a jerk.

Carter and Jack looked almost exactly alike, as if they were twins. Same dark, curly hair. Same amber eyes. Same deep brown skin and lush mouths and wide cheekbones that were the envy of every girl in town. They weren’t twins, though. Jack was a changeling—Carter’s changeling, left behind when Carter got stolen away by the faeries.

Fairfold was a strange place. Dead in the center of the Carling forest, the haunted forest, full of what Hazel’s grandfather called Greenies and what her mother called They Themselves or the Folk of the Air. In these woods, it wasn’t odd to see a black hare swimming in the creek—although rabbits don’t usually much care for swimming—or to spot a deer that became a sprinting girl in the blink of an eye. Every autumn, a portion of the harvest apples was left out for the cruel and capricious Alderking. Flower garlands were threaded for him every spring. Townsfolk knew to fear the monster coiled in the heart of the forest, who lured tourists with a cry that sounded like a woman weeping. Its fingers were sticks, its hair moss. It fed on sorrow and sowed corruption. You could lure it out with a singsong chant, the kind girls dare one another to say at birthday sleepovers. Plus there was a hawthorn tree in a ring of stones where you could bargain for your heart’s desire by tying a strip of your clothing to the branches under a full moon and waiting for one of the Folk to come. The year before, Jenny Eichmann had gone out there and wished herself into Princeton, promising to pay anything the faeries wanted. She’d gotten in, too, but her mother had a stroke and died the same day the letter came.

Which was why, between the wishes and the horned boy and the odd sightings, even though Fairfold was so tiny that the kids in kindergarten went to school in an adjacent building to the seniors, and that you had to go three towns over to buy a new washing machine or stroll through a mall, the town still got plenty of tourists. Other places had the biggest ball of twine or a very large wheel of cheese or a chair big enough for a giant. They had scenic waterfalls or shimmering caves full of jagged stalactites or bats that slept beneath a bridge. Fairfold had the boy in the glass coffin. Fairfold had the Folk.

And to the Folk, tourists were fair game.

Maybe that’s what they had thought Carter’s parents were. Carter’s dad was from out of town, but Carter’s mom was no tourist. It took a single night for her to realize that her baby had been stolen. And she’d known just what to do. She sent her husband out of the house for the day and invited over a bunch of neighbor ladies. They’d baked bread and chopped wood and filled an old earthenware bowl with salt. Then, when everything was done, Carter’s mom heated a poker in the fireplace.

First it turned red, but she did nothing. It was only once the metal glowed white that she pressed the very tip of the poker against the changeling’s shoulder.

It shrieked with pain, its voice spiraling so high that both kitchen windows shattered.

There’d been a smell like when you toss fresh grass onto a fire, and the baby’s skin turned bright, bubbling red. The burn left a scar, too. Hazel had seen it when she and Jack and Ben and Carter went swimming last summer—stretched out by growing, but still there.

Burning a changeling summons its mother. She arrived on the threshold moments later, a swaddled bundle in her arms. According to the stories, she was thin and tall, her hair the brown of autumn leaves, her skin the color of bark, with eyes that changed from moment to moment, molten silver to owl gold to dull and gray as stone. There was no mistaking her for human.

“You don’t take our children,” said Carter’s mother—or at least that was how the story Hazel heard went, and she’d heard the story a lot. “You don’t spirit us away or make us sick. That’s how things have worked around here for generations, and that’s how things are going to keep on working.”

The faerie woman seemed to shrink back a little. As if in answer, she silently held out the child she’d brought, wrapped up in blankets, sleeping as peacefully as if he were in his own bed. “Take him,” she said.

Carter’s mother crushed him to her, drinking in the rightness of his sour-milk smell. She said that was the one thing the Folk of the Air couldn’t fake. The other baby just hadn’t smelled like Carter.

Then the faerie woman had reached out her arms for her own wailing child, but the neighbor woman holding him stepped back. Carter’s mother blocked the way.

“You can’t have him,” said Carter’s mother, passing her own baby to her sister and picking up iron filings and red berries and salt, protection against the faerie woman’s magic. “If you were willing to trade him away, even for an hour, then you don’t deserve him. I’ll keep them both to raise as my own and let that be our judgment on you for breaking oath with us.”

At that, the elf woman spoke in a voice like wind and rain and brittle leaves snapping underfoot. “You do not have the lessoning of us. You have no power, no claim. Give me my child and I will place a blessing on your house, but if you keep him, you will come to regret it.”

“Damn the consequences and damn you, too,” said Carter’s mom, according to everyone who has ever told this story. “Get the hell out.”

And so, even though some of the neighbor ladies grumbled about Carter’s mother borrowing trouble, that was how Jack came to live with Carter’s family and to become Carter’s brother and Ben’s best friend. That was how they all got so used to Jack that no one was surprised anymore by how his ears tapered to small points or how his eyes shone silver sometimes, or the way he could predict the weather better than any weatherman on the news.

“So do you think Ben’s having a better time than we are?” Jack asked her, forcing her thoughts away from his past and his scar and his handsome face.

If Hazel took kissing boys too lightly, then Ben never took it lightly enough. He wanted to be in love, was all too willing to give away his still-beating heart. Ben had always been like that, even when it cost him more than she wanted to think about.

However, even he didn’t have much luck online.

“I think Ben’s date will be boring.” Hazel took the beer can from Jack’s hand and swigged. It tasted sour. “Most of them are boring, even the liars. Especially the liars. I don’t know why he bothers.”

Carter shrugged. “Sex?”

“He likes stories,” Jack said, with a conspiratorial grin in her direction.

Hazel licked the foam off her upper lip, some of her previous good cheer returning. “Yeah, I guess.”

Carter stood, eyeing Megan Rojas, who’d just arrived with freshly purpled hair, carrying a bottle of cinnamon schnapps, the pointed heels of her spiderweb-stitched boots sinking into the soft earth. “I’m going to get another beer. You want something?”

“Hazel stole mine,” Jack said, nodding toward her. The thick silver hoops in his ears glinted in the moonlight. “So grab another round for us both?”

“Try not to break any hearts while I’m gone,” Carter told Hazel, as if he was joking, but his tone wasn’t entirely friendly.

Hazel sat down on the part of the log that Carter had vacated, looking at the girls dancing and the other kids drinking. She felt outside of it all, purposeless and adrift. Once, she’d had a quest, one she’d been willing to give up everything for, but it turned out that some quests couldn’t be won just by giving things up.

“Don’t listen to him,” Jack told her as soon as his brother was safely on the other side of the casket and out of hearing range. “You didn’t do anything wrong with Rob. Anyone who offers up their heart on a silver platter deserves what they get.”

Hazel thought of Ben and wondered if that was true.

“I just keep making the same mistake,” she said. “I go to a party and I kiss some guy who I would never think of kissing at school. Guys I don’t even really like. It’s as though out here, in the woods, they’re going to reveal some secret side of themselves. But they’re always just the same.”

“It’s just kissing.” He grinned at her; his mouth twisted up on one side, and something twisted inside her in response. His smiles and Carter’s smiles were nothing alike. “It’s fun. You’re not hurting anybody. It’s not like you’re stabbing boys just to make something happen around here.”

That surprised a laugh out of her. “Maybe you should tell that to Carter.”

She didn’t explain that she wasn’t so much wanting something to happen as not wanting to be the only one with a secret self to reveal.

Jack draped an arm over her shoulder, pretend-flirting. It was friendly, funny. “He’s my brother, so I can tell you definitively that he’s an idiot. You must amuse yourself however you can among the dull folk of Fairfold.”

She shook her head, smiling, and then turned toward him. He stopped speaking, and she realized how close their faces had become. Close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath against her cheek.

Close enough to watch the dark fringe of his eyelashes turn gold in the reflected light and to see the soft bow of his mouth.

Hazel’s heart started pounding, her ten-year-old self’s crush coming back with a vengeance. It made her feel just as vulnerable and silly as she’d felt back then. She hated that feeling. She was the one who broke hearts now, not the other way around.

Anyone who offers up their heart on a silver platter deserves what they get.

There was only one way to get over a boy. Only one way that ever worked.

Jack’s gaze was slightly unfocused, his lips slightly apart. It seemed exactly right to close the distance between them, to shut her eyes and press her mouth to his. Warm and gentle, he pressed back for a single shared exchange of breath.

Then he pulled away, blinking. “Hazel, I didn’t mean for you—”

“No,” she said, leaping up, her cheeks hot. He was her friend, her brother’s best friend. He mattered. It would never be okay to kiss him, even if he wanted her to, which he clearly did not, and which made everything much worse. “Of course not. Sorry. Sorry! I told you I shouldn’t go around kissing people, and here I am doing it again.”

She backed away.

“Wait,” he started, reaching to catch her arm, but she didn’t want to stay around while he tried to find the right words to let her down easy.

Hazel fled, passing Carter with her head down, so she didn’t have to see his knowing told-you-so look. She felt stupid and, worse, like she deserved to be rejected. Like it served her right. It was the kind of karmic justice that didn’t usually happen in real life, or at least didn’t usually happen so fast.

Hazel headed straight for Franklin. “Can I have some of that?” she asked him, pointing to the metal flask.

He looked at her blearily through bloodshot eyes but held the flask out. “You won’t like it.”

She didn’t. The moonshine burned all the way down her throat. But she slugged back two more swallows, hoping that she could forget everything that had happened since she’d arrived at the party. Hoping that Jack would never tell Ben what she’d done. Hoping Jack would pretend it hadn’t happened. She just wished she could undo everything, unravel time like yarn from a sweater.

Across the clearing, illuminated by Stephen’s headlights, Tom Mullins, linebacker and general rageaholic, leaped up onto the glass coffin suddenly enough to make the girls hop off. He looked completely wasted, face flushed and hair sticking up with sweat.

“Hey,” he shouted, jumping up and down, stomping like he was trying to crack the glass. “Hey, wakey, wakey, eggs and bakey. Come on, you ancient fuck, get up!”

“Quit it,” said Martin, waving for Tom to get down. “Remember what happened to Lloyd?”

Lloyd was the kind of bad kid who liked to start fires and carried a knife to school. When teachers were taking attendance, they were hard-pressed to remember whether he wasn’t there because he was cutting class or because he was suspended. One night last spring Lloyd took a sledgehammer to the glass coffin. It didn’t shatter, but the next time Lloyd set a fire, he got burned. He was still in a hospital in Philadelphia, where they had to graft skin from his ass onto his face.

Some people said the horned boy had done that to Lloyd, because he didn’t like it when people messed with his coffin. Others said that whoever had cursed the horned boy had cursed the glass, too. So if anyone tried to break it, that person would bring bad luck on themselves. Though Tom Mullins knew all that, he didn’t seem to care.

Hazel knew just how he felt.

“Get up!” he yelled, kicking and stomping and jumping. “Hey, lazybones, time to waaaaaaake up!”

Carter grabbed his arm. “Tom, come on. We’re going to do shots. You don’t want to miss this.”

Tom looked unsure.

“Come on,” Carter repeated. “Unless you’re too drunk already.”

“Yeah,” said Martin, trying to sound convincing. “Maybe you can’t hold your booze, Tom.”

That did it. Tom scrambled down, lumbering away from the coffin, protesting that he could drink more than the both of them combined.

“So,” Franklin said to Hazel. “Just another dull night in Fairfold, where everyone’s a lunatic or an elf.”

She took one more drink from the silver flask. She was starting to get used to the feeling that her esophagus was on fire. “Pretty much.”

He grinned, red-rimmed eyes dancing. “Want to make out?”

From the look of him, he was as miserable as Hazel was. Franklin, who’d barely spoken for the first three years of grammar school and who everyone was sure ate roadkill for dinner sometimes. Franklin, who wouldn’t thank her if she asked him what was bothering him, since she’d wager he had almost as much to forget as she did.

Hazel felt a little bit light-headed and a lot reckless. “Okay.”

As they walked away from the truck and into the woods, she glanced back at the party in the grove. Jack was watching her with an unreadable expression on his face. She turned away. Passing under an oak tree, Franklin’s hand in hers, Hazel thought she saw the branches shift above her, like fingers, but when she looked again, all she saw were shadows.

 

Excerpted from The Darkest Part of the Forest © Holly Black, 2015

5 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!