A witch cursed to never love meets a girl hiding her own dangerous magic, and the two strike a dangerous bargain…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sweet & Bitter Magic, the debut fantasy from author Adrienne Tooley—available March 9th from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Tamsin is the most powerful witch of her generation. But after committing the worst magical sin, she’s exiled by the ruling Coven and cursed with the inability to love. The only way she can get those feelings back—even for just a little while—is to steal love from others.
Wren is a source—a rare kind of person who is made of magic, despite being unable to use it herself. Sources are required to train with the Coven as soon as they discover their abilities, but Wren—the only caretaker to her ailing father—has spent her life hiding her secret.
When a magical plague ravages the queendom, Wren’s father falls victim. To save him, Wren proposes a bargain: if Tamsin will help her catch the dark witch responsible for creating the plague, then Wren will give Tamsin her love for her father.
Of course, love bargains are a tricky thing, and these two have a long, perilous journey ahead of them—that is, if they don’t kill each other first…
The candle’s tiny flame flickered, then failed. Wren swore, her voice barely a whisper, more of a suggestion than a sound. If her father woke, he would beg her not to go, and it would be another hour before she could lull him back to sleep. By the time she made it to market, everyone would have gotten their eggs from Lensla, the miserable woman who lived near the bog, and Wren would be without coins. Again.
She’d heard a rumor that girls in the North had offered a stiltzkin their names for the ability to turn straw into gold. What she would have given to make such a trade. Wren didn’t need a name. Not if it meant she’d have gold to spare, a full belly, and proper medicine for her father. She had been named for a bird, after all. It wouldn’t be a terrible loss.
Tiptoeing carefully across the small room, Wren cringed as she stumbled over her father’s boots at the foot of the bed. She paused, keeping her breath trapped in her lungs. There was no sound from her father. Exhaling gently, Wren stayed rooted to the floor until her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Only then did she bend down to grab the boots, the leather soft and worn from their many years guarding her father’s feet. She settled them carefully in the corner so she would not trip again.
She fumbled with the door, opening it just wide enough to slip through before shutting it quickly to shield her father’s sickbed from the sunlight spilling through the cottage’s front windows.
Wren sighed again, at full volume this time. It had been a particularly unpleasant night, her father complaining of a headache so searing he was unable to keep down even the smallest spoonful of water. She had finally lulled him to sleep with a warm mustard-seed compress and the hint of a song, her voice low and husky from her own lack of sleep.
“I’d be dead without you, little bird,” her father had murmured, minutes before falling into a fitful slumber. Wren wished she could chalk the sentiment up to feverish exaggeration, but it was the truth. You must promise never to leave me, Wren, her father had said, the day after her mother died, for without you, I do not think I would survive. In the five years since, he’d never let her forget it.
Wren ran a hand through her hair, her fingers catching in the tangled plait, the same fiery-red shade as her mother’s. Most days she wanted to chop it all off, but that would break her father’s heart. And so she kept her hair, the weight of it always on her shoulders. A memory she always had to carry.
She quickly washed her face and hands, the cold water shocking her senses awake. She retied her hair into a neat braid and pulled on her boots, lacing them with quick efficiency. She rolled out the crick in her neck and stretched her hands to the ceiling. Her pale fingertips brushed the bottom of the roof’s wooden beam.
Wren was beginning to outgrow her life.
Each day she struggled to fold herself up into the small, perfect pieces the world demanded. The freckle-faced village girl who peddled eggs at market to support her family. The dutiful daughter who spent every waking moment nursing her perpetually ill father back to health. The quiet girl who was trying not to drown in an ocean of her own secrets.
For sleep was not the only thing Wren had sacrificed for her father.
Wren gathered two large baskets and lined their insides with soft, brightly colored cloth. A basket on each arm, she headed outside, around the corner of their small, thatched cottage toward the chicken coop. The air smelled of freshly clipped lavender, the scent wafting across the morning in a purple haze. Of course, it wasn’t actually lavender Wren was smelling—it was magic.
Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it.
She couldn’t. The magic swirled around her even as she turned her back, caressing her cheek, light as a feather, while she shooed her hens away from their nests. She gathered their small, warm bounty determinedly, wiping the eggs clean and tucking them carefully between the worn tea towels. The magic draped itself around her like a scarf. Wren swatted at the air, trying to dispel it. It wasn’t like she could do anything with the purple haze of magic. She wasn’t a witch.
She was a source.
For years Wren had believed that everyone saw the world the way she did. That other people could see magic’s shining colors twisting through the sky like ribbons, could recognize its pungent scent. Wren couldn’t imagine life without magic’s soft, soothing whisper, without being able to touch its pillowy lightness or taste its hint of sweetness, like a ripe berry ready to burst. It wasn’t until she was met with the blank stares of her playmates that Wren realized that there was something different about her. That no one else could see the swirling, colorful cloud of magic that always hung above her head.
She should have gone straight to the Witchlands. The Coven required any ordinary folk who believed they possessed power to enter the Witchwood, the border of enchanted trees surrounding their country. Were they to make it through the Wood to the Witchlands, they would train with the Coven and carve out a place for themselves in the world of magic. Should they refuse to come of their own accord, they would be tracked down and taken by force, never allowed to return to the world beyond the Wood.
Wren was supposed to be there. Sources were highly valued: They housed pure magic, magic a witch could draw from in order to supplement their own power. The Coven would have taken her in without a moment’s hesitation and kept her well-compensated for the rest of her life.
But magic had torn her family apart once before. During the Year of Darkness, when her parents were young and newly married, they’d had a child, a boy who was only days old when he caught the sickness cast by the dark witch Evangeline. Wren came along nearly twelve years later. By then her parents were old and haunted, grief-stricken and set in their fear and hatred of all things magic. When her mother died, her father became even more delicate.
And so Wren kept her true self hidden. She would run a hand through her braid, tugging loose the plait so her father wouldn’t notice that when the wind blew, not a single hair fell out of place. She forced herself to shiver in the winter, despite the fact that she was never cold, not even when she walked barefoot through the snow. The world bent toward her, like recognizing like. Magic recognizing magic.
Her father could never know. So Wren tried to ignore the way magic pulled at her. She chose not to go the Witchlands to train, the way the Coven’s edict required. She kept her distance from any and all magic lest she be found out and punished for her defection.
Wren did her best to pretend she hadn’t wanted that life anyway.
After slipping the final egg into her basket and tucking the cloth protectively around her precious wares, Wren closed the latch on the coop and moved swiftly through her front gate, which slammed behind her. She winced despite herself, thinking of her father and his already-unsteady slumber.
A deeper, darker part of her hoped it had woken him up.
Before her feet met the path, soft black fur brushed against her ankle—the scruffy stray cat that often hung around her house. Wren knelt, balancing her baskets as she scratched him behind the ears. She’d always had a way with animals—birds settling on her shoulder as she walked to town, dogs following dutifully at her heels, even horses occasionally coming to nuzzle her neck despite her empty pockets.
“I know, I know.” Wren rummaged in her basket for a crumb but came up with nothing. “You’re hungry. I’m sorry.” The cat’s yellow eyes stared accusingly up at her. “So am I, you know. Not that you care.” The cat let out a soft mewl.
Wren ran her hand across the creature’s matted back, extracting a burr that had stuck near the base of its tail. The cat nipped affectionately at her finger. “That’s all I can do,” Wren murmured apologetically. “Unless I have a very good day at market.” Though of course that wasn’t likely. The cat nuzzled her knee, leaving black fur clinging to the green wool of her trousers. “Okay, greedy. I’ll do my best.” Wren gave the cat a final scratch behind the ears, then hauled herself up, careful not to jostle her eggs.
The cat shot Wren an affronted look.
Wren glanced back up at the purple haze of magic. It pointed down the path to the left, toward the town of Wells. She glanced to the right, toward Ladaugh. It was a similar walk to each town’s main square, but the sky in that direction was a clear, normal blue.
It wasn’t even a choice, really.
Magic made Wren a bit… odd. She was forever shooing it away, constantly smoothing down the hair that stood up on the back of her neck in its presence, always trying to explain why she’d stopped a conversation midsentence, listening to a shriek no one else could hear. Sometimes she gave in to it, closed her eyes and tried to will it in her direction, to parse its dazzling ribbons and unravel its secrets. But there she was less successful. Mostly she just waved her hands about and felt ridiculous.
Still, the purple ribbon felt like a sign. If she followed, it might lead her to a field of wildflowers or to a tiny creek running with the freshest water she had ever tasted. It might take her to a den of baby foxes that would chase their tails and nuzzle her arm with their wet, black noses.…
Wren’s baskets weighed heavily on her arms as she let her daydream die. She needed to head to market to trade for food and herbs for her father. She could not afford the distraction. And so Wren turned right, leaving the magic—and her desperate glimmer of wanting—behind.
Her footsteps crunched on the road to Ladaugh, kicking up dust that danced around her ankles. Her baskets swung jauntily as the path wound its way through Farmer Haddon’s field, where his four sons chased one another with sticks. The wheat was tall, nearly to Wren’s waist. It had been a wet spring, but summer had driven away the clouds, leaving the days crisp and bright and warm. The sun was hot against her cheek. Soon her face would bloom with freckles, and the bridge of her nose would turn a perpetual pink.
Wren walked past towering hay bales and endless fields of corn, stopping once to offer her hand to a field mouse, which settled on her shoulder, its tiny claws tangling in her hair. She waved at Amelia, the butcher’s wife, who was loaded down with three baskets and nearly as many crying children. She crossed a great stone bridge, passing others carrying their market wares in baskets or strapped upon their backs. Despite their friendly greetings, their faces were set.
Something had shifted since she’d crossed the river. It hung sourly in the air, was present in the townspeople’s grim expressions. Even the field mouse had scampered down her back and into the tall summer grass. When she came upon a family—a father, mother, and little boy, doubtfully older than three—pulling a wooden cart loaded with everything they owned, her curiosity got the best of her.
“Hello, friends.” She raised a hand in greeting. “Where are you headed this morning?”
“South, of course.” The woman looked at Wren with wide eyes, her face frantic. “Haven’t you heard? There’s a plague sweeping its way through the queendom.” She shivered, pulling her child close.
“Were you not at the meeting?” the father asked, noting Wren’s confusion. “Queen Mathilde has fled from Farn and headed to the Winter Palace. The capital has been completely ravaged by the sickness. Once the plague makes its way over the mountains, we will be next.”
“What are the symptoms?” Wren tugged sharply on the end of her braid. Her father could not afford another sickness. He was already feverish and bedridden, his illness unresponsive to her remedies. “The usual sorts?”
The woman shook her head sharply. “It isn’t a physical sickness.”
That was a relief. Her father’s symptoms were very much physical. Whatever he had wasn’t this plague.
“They said…” The woman paused, putting her hands over her child’s tiny ears. The boy squirmed beneath her touch, burying his face in her linen trousers. “They said it creeps inside your mind, siphons out your memories and your joys. Leaves the afflicted bodies empty, like”—the woman glanced side to side, her voice dropping to barely a whisper—“walking ghosts.”
Wren’s body went cold. What sort of sickness was strong enough to rob a person of their soul?
The father looked over his shoulder, down the road to Ladaugh, eager to move on. He put an arm around his wife. “Excuse us,” he said, smiling emptily at Wren. He ushered his family forward, their backs bent with the weight of their cart, their heads bowed in fear. Wren raised a hand in parting, but the family did not look back.
Excerpted from Sweet & Bitter Magic, copyright © 2021 by Adrienne Tooley