In Seven Endless Forests, the gorgeous standalone companion to The Boneless Mercies, April Genevieve Tucholke spins a bold and blood-hungry retelling of the King Arthur legend. Seven Endless Forests publishes April 28th with Farrar, Straus and Giroux—but you can get started now with the excerpt below!
On the heels of a devastating plague, Torvi’s sister, Morgunn is stolen from the family farm by Uther, a flame-loving Fremish wolf-priest who leads a pack of ragged, starving girls. Torvi leaves the only home she’s ever known, and joins a shaven-skulled druid and a band of roaming Elsh artists known as the Butcher Bards. They set out on a quest to rescue Torvi’s sister, and find a mythical sword.
On their travels, Torvi and her companions will encounter magical night wilds and mystical Drakes who trade in young men. They will sing rowdy Elshland ballads in a tree-town tavern, and find a mysterious black tower in an Endless Forest. They will fight alongside famous Vorseland archers and barter with Fremish wizards. They will feast with rogue Jade Fell children in a Skal Mountain cave, and seek the help of a Pig Witch. They will face wild, dangerous magic that leads to love, joy, tragedy, and death.
Torvi sets out to rescue a sister, but she may find it’s merely the first step toward a life that is grander and more glorious than anything she could have imagined.
We stopped to watch four women dance on a low wooden stage. They were dressed as ravens, long, dark cloaks, black masks with black pointed beaks. A young girl stood in the corner, beating out a hypnotic rhythm on a drum that was twice her size.
The women danced like fire—nimble, flickering flames, arms raised, lithe bodies coiling together under a sky of butter-yellow stars.
“It’s a dance of death,” Stefan whispered as one of them knelt, head back, throat exposed.
Another dancer joined them. She climbed onto the shoulders of the tallest dancer while a third retrieved an ax from a corner of the stage.
“I recognize this. It’s the story of Frey and the Boneless Mercies,” I said.
Madoc leaned toward me, lips to my ear. “Watch the ending closely.”
The final steps depicted the Mercies’ battle with Logafell. It was a dance of the Seventh Degree, ax blades flashing. It was a dance of pain, a Boneless Mercy falling into a crumpled mass of long hair and dark cloak on a corner of the stage.
The drumbeats swelled. The young girl struck the drum with two mallets now, louder… louder…
One of the raven-cloaked dancers threw a dagger, and the giant fell. The two dancers landed hard on the stage with a thud that made my heart shake.
The drum went silent. No one in the audience spoke or moved for several long moments after the performance finished.
“It was glorious,” I said to the performers when they took their bows at last. I placed two klines on the stage, my heart full.
The Bards kept one hand on their daggers as we strolled down another row of stalls. Stefan and Ink were growing more and more relaxed, lulled by the endless wonder and beauty of the Night Wild, as well as the trance sage. Madoc remained alert, eyes scanning the crowd.
He caught me watching him and pointed upward. I followed his arm, squinting in the dark. I saw a flicker of movement—
“There are guards in the trees,” I said. Men and women watched from above, bows in hand, black-clad limbs nearly hid.den by leaves.
Madoc nodded. “The market is being watched, and closely. It puts my mind at ease, somewhat.”
Gyda turned to us, having overheard our conversation. “I’m comforted that the traders hired a wizard—that central bonfire is not just a tower of pretty, silver-edged flames. It’s a sort of peace spell, I think, keeping out all those of a violent mind… or sedating them at least, aided by the trance sage.”
I slowed my pace so that I could walk beside Ink. “My mother used to tell me a story about a Night Wild in the Borders,” I said to the storyteller. “They held a contest of magic between an eighteen-year-old Pig Witch and a young, itinerant Fremish wizard. It started with flames and smoke and ended in a skin-fight— both mystics brawling in the dirt like a couple of spoiled Vorse children.”
“‘The Pig and the Prophet.’” Ink’s green eyes danced. “Listeners still request that tale. Rumor has it that the Strega and the Fremish wizard later became lovers and raised a large pack of magically gifted children on an unmapped southern island.”
“I can see losing your heart to a Frem magician, but a Pig Witch?” Stefan shook his head. “Their magic of swine and sacri.fice and entrails… it makes my blood run cold.”
“Agreed,” Gyda said.
“And yet my mother loved a Strega, all the same.” Ink low.ered her gaze. “Loved and hated. Two sides of the same coin.”
Stefan reached out and rested his hand on the storyteller’s arm. “Enough of the past. Tonight we forget. Tonight we seize life by the horns. Tonight we grow wild.”
“Truth,” Ink said with a laugh. “Truth, brother Bard.”
I saw kinship spark between the two Elsh artists, deep and genuine, and I envied it. I’d felt this kinship in the past, with Morgunn and Viggo.
I’d grown attached to the three Bards. There was a camaraderie swiftly growing between us. I admired them, especially the cheerful Stefan, with his dark, lively eyes and his amiable temperament and his gentle voice. He and Gyda exchanged quiet jokes and frequent laughter, and it brought me joy.
My heart lay buried on my steading, with a gray-eyed shepherd, but Gyda was free to love.
We entered the lane of food stalls and sampled fruit featuring every color under the sun—white, black, blue, purple, green, red, yellow. Ink and I shared a brightly striped fig—it hailed from an island so far away that even she, the storyteller, had never heard of it.
Ink bought sweet butter ale from two comely sisters, and Stefan purchased a red-hued reverie potion from a young Finn mystic clad in a white wool dress and a deer-skull mask. We all took turns sipping from the ceramic bottles as we walked, though Madoc’s gaze remained fixed on the shadows.
“He doesn’t seem to be enjoying this market,” I said to Stefan when Madoc paused at a stall to inspect a wool cloak. “I don’t believe it’s the risk of wolves—he strikes me as a person more likely to court danger than run from it.”
Stefan nodded. “Aye. He does have another reason. It’s a sad story.”
“Go on,” I said. “Let’s hear Madoc’s sorrowful tale, if you’re free to tell it.”
The Elsh were not like the Vorse. They often discussed their past—they held no superstitions about it being unlucky.
Stefan took out his pipe and began to fill it with brickle-leaf. “Madoc was abandoned as an infant. Left at a Night Wild in Elshland. An old herb witch found him starving in an empty tent, half dead in the cold—she nursed him back to health with her earth magic.”
“Madoc told you this willingly?” I asked.
“I had to get him drunk first. Very, very drunk. The healer died when Madoc was still a boy, and he wandered from camp to camp, never belonging anywhere, until he joined our band of Butcher Bards. We were his first real family… until Uther slaughtered our troupe as they slept peacefully by the fire.” Stefan paused. “No one wants revenge on these wolves more than he does.”
Madoc returned, and we walked on. The night began to slip and blur, images drifting in and out like clouds passing through the sky.
I saw two young men selling brightly dyed fabrics, billowing waves of purple, red, yellow, and blue silk that rippled in the night breeze. I drew near their stall, and the cool, sleek cloth draped itself over my body, caressing my skin.
I saw Elsh hedge witches standing guard over black cauldrons of bubbling brews, dried animals and dried herbs hanging from a cobweb of strings across the ceiling of their open tents. They called out their wares with melancholy songs—
“Cure your heart, cure your head, bring to life the fully dead. Who will buy? Who will buy?”
I saw several fortune-tellers, the most memorable being a thin, angular man with long, dark hair that reached to the floor of his striped tent. A blond-haired child stood beside him, lean.ing against his knee, whispering in his ear as he flipped circular white cards for the young woman who looked on, eyes wide.
I saw contortionists and tumblers—some were children no older than twelve or thirteen. They flipped and danced and twisted, bodies bending like willows. We stopped and watched them for some time, dazzled by their skill.
I saw a band of brigand musicians lurking under the branches of an oak tree, all dressed in tight-fitting black tunics, holding wooden flutes to their chests. They stared at me boldly, their narrowed eyes shifting from my face to the leather coin pouch at my waist. I started to walk toward them, but Ink took my arm.
“They are thieves as well as artists—as likely to give you a song as steal your coin. Both at the same time, usually.”
“It would almost be worth having my coins stolen just to hear one of their melodies,” I whispered.
The brigand musicians were spoken of in the sagas. Little was known about them, outside of their ability to appear in summer at the Night Wilds, then disappear again come autumn. Their songs were said to haunt their listeners the rest of their lives, the notes rippling through important events, echoing through dreams.
Stefan looked at me over his shoulder. “Save your coin. You and Gyda need blades. If we slay Uther and survive, there will be time to buy magic songs down the road.”
Madoc nodded. “There will be all the time in the world.”
We circled past the central bonfire again to return to Weapons’ Lane and take the side path to the dagger stalls. A group of Long Death fanatics was preaching on one side of the field, naked except for their long hair, bodies powdered gray with ash. They took turns shouting out the attributes of their goddess, Klaw.
Ink nodded toward the group. “The Long Death followers appeared in Vorseland two years ago. Rumor has it they come from the dark moors of southern Frem. Klaw’s worshippers claim she gives her true believers everlasting life.”
“Does she?” I asked.
Ink shrugged. “I doubt it. Though something is worrisome in how quickly Klaw’s followers are growing in number.”
We turned to the left and slipped past a series of stalls de.voted to brutish wooden clubs and hedge axes before finding the lane selling smaller blades—tiny, sophisticated Fremish knives and Elshland daggers.
I purchased two fine Butcher Bard blades at a knife stall recommended by Madoc. It was run by two broad-shouldered brothers with soft voices and wise eyes.
I lifted my hair so Madoc could tie the knife around my neck. The dagger felt good as it nestled into my sternum, as if it had always wanted to be there.
Gyda smiled when I tied the leather straps of the second hilt around her neck. “Thank you, Torvi,” she said. “I will think of you every time I slit a wolf’s neck with this delightful blade.”
And just like that, we became Butcher Bards.
Excerpted from Seven Endless Forests, copyright © 2020 by April Genevieve Tucholke.