A young pagan woman with hidden powers and a one-eyed captain of the Woodsmen form an unlikely alliance to thwart a tyrant…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Ava Reid’s The Wolf and the Woodsman, a debut novel inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology—publishing June 8th with Harper Voyager.
In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.
But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.
As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.
The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.
The girls who are skilled forgers fashion little iron stakes to drive through the roots of the trees and into the earth, anchoring them in place. With no gift for forging between the two of us, Boróka and I haul a great length of rope, snaring any trees we pass in clumsy loops and awkward knots. When we finish, it looks the spider web of some giant creature, something the woods might cough up. The thought doesn’t even make me shiver. Nothing that might break through the tree line could be worse than the Woodsmen.
“Who do you think it will be?” Boróka asks. The light of the setting sun filters through the patchy cathedral of tree cover, dappling her face. Tears are pearled in the corners of her eyes.
“Virág,” I say. “With any luck.”
Boróka’s mouth twists.
“Though I suspect halfway through their journey the Woodsmen will tire of her babbling about weather omens and dump her in the Black Lake.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Of course I don’t. I wouldn’t wish the Woodsmen on anyone, no matter how much they lashed me, how meanly they chided me, or how many hours I spent scraping their cold gulyás out of yesterday’s pots. But it’s easier to loathe Virág than to worry I might lose her.
The wind picks up, carrying the voices of the other girls toward us, as silvery as the bone chimes hanging outside of Virág’s hut. They sing to make their forging gift stronger, the way the great hero Vilmötten did, when he crafted the sword of the gods. As their song falters, so does their steel. Almost unconsciously I move toward them, bow and arrow shifting on my back. Instead of listening to their words, I look at their hands.
They rub their palms together, gently at first, and then with greater ferocity, as if they might scour their skin right off. By the time the song is done, each girl is gripping a small iron stake, as slick and sturdy as any that might come off a blacksmith’s blazing forge. Boróka notices me watching—notices the look of jilted longing she’s seen on my face a hundred times before.
“Ignore them,” Boróka whispers.
It’s easy for her to say. If Isten, the father-god, cast his smiling face down on the woods right now, he would see a mottled rainbow of gray and tawny smeared against the green bramble. Their wolf cloaks gleam even in the ebbing sunlight, the individual hairs turned almost translucent. The teeth of the dead animals, still fully intact, form an arc over each girl’s head, as if the animal were about to eat her. Boróka’s wolf cloak is a bleached ochre—a healer’s color.
But when Isten saw me, all he would see is a cloak of plain wool, thin and patched with my own lazy threadwork. I can always feel the humiliating weight of it, clothed in my own inferiority. I turn to Boróka to reply, but then I hear a hushed giggle behind me, and the smell of something burning fills my nose.
I whirl around, my hair trailing blue fire. Biting back a yelp, my impotent hands fly up to try to smother the flame. It’s all they want from me, that wild-eyed panic, and they get it. The fire is out before I know it, but my throat is burning as I march toward Katalin and her lackeys.
“I’m terribly sorry, Évike,” Katalin says. “The skill of fire-making is hard to master. My hand must have slipped.”
“What a pity that you find such a simple skill so difficult to perform,” I snap.
My comment only earns another chorus of laughs. Katalin’s hood is pulled up over her head, the wolf’s mouth twisted into an ugly snarl, eyes glassy and blind. Her cloak is precisely the same color as her hair, white as a carp’s belly, or, if I’m charitable, the winter’s first snow. It’s a seer’s color.
I want to tear her pristine cloak off her back and make her watch as I drag it through the muddy riverbed. A small, mute part of me wants to hang it over my own shoulders, but I know I would only feel like a fraud.
“Perhaps I do,” Katalin says with a shrug. “Or perhaps I can have another girl make my fires for me, when I am the village táltos.”
“Virág isn’t dead yet.”
“Of course it won’t be you, Évike,” she presses on, ignoring me. “It will have to be someone who can light more than a spark.”
“Or heal more than a splinter,” Írisz, one of her preening wolf pack, speaks up.
“Or forge a sewing needle,” Zsófia, the other one, adds.
“Leave her alone,” Boróka says. “None of you should be so cruel, especially on a Woodsman day.”
In truth they’re no crueler than usual. And, of course, they’re right. But I would never give them the satisfaction of admitting it, or of even flinching when they enumerate my failures.
“Évike doesn’t have to worry on a Woodsman day, does she?” Katalin’s smile is white and gloating, a perfect mirror of her wolf’s. “The Woodsmen only take the girls with magic. It’s a shame none of her mother’s skills are in her blood, or else we might be rid of her for good.”
The word mother burns worse than blue flame. “Keep your mouth shut.”
Katalin smiles. At least, her mouth does.
If I think hard about it, I can almost feel sorry for her. After all, her white cloak is given, not earned—and I know how ugly a seer’s duties can be. But I don’t care to show her the sort of pity she’s never shown me.
Boróka lays a hand on my arm. Her grip is reassuring— and restraining. I tense under the pressure of it, but I don’t lurch toward Katalin. Her eyes, pale as a river under ice, glint with assured victory. She turns to go, her cloak sweeping out behind her, and Írisz and Zsófia follow.
Hands shaking, I reach for the bow on my back.
The rest of the girls spend their days honing their magic and practicing swordplay. Some can perform three skills; some have mastered one exceptionally well, like Boróka, who’s as useless at fire-making or forging as I am, but can heal better than anyone in the village. Without even the feeblest glimmer of the gods’ magic, though, I’m relegated to hunting with the men, who always eye me with discomfort and suspicion. It’s not an easy peace, but it’s made me a mean shot.
It doesn’t come close to making up for being barren—the only girl in Keszi, our village, with no aptitude for any of the three skills. No blessings from Isten. Everyone has their own whispered theories about why the gods passed me over, why none of their magic pooled in my blood or grafted white onto my bones. I no longer care to hear any of them.
“Don’t,” Boróka pleads. “You’ll only make everything worse—”
I want to laugh. I want to ask her what could be worse— would they strike me? Scratch me? Burn me? They’ve done all that and more. Once I made the mistake of swiping one of Katalin’s sausages off the feast table, and she sent a curtain of flame billowing toward me without hesitation or remorse. I sulked around the village for a month afterward, speaking to no one, until my eyebrows grew back.
There’s still a tiny bald patch in my left brow, slick with scar tissue.
I notch the arrow and pull back the bow. Katalin is the perfect target—an impossible mound of snow in the gold-green haze of late summer, bright enough to make your eyes sting.
Boróka lets out another clipped sound of protest, and I let the arrow fly. It skims right past Katalin, ruffling the white fur of her wolf cloak, and vanishes into a black tangle of briars.
Katalin doesn’t scream, but I catch the look of sheer panic on her face before her fear turns to scandalized anger. Though it’s the only satisfaction I’ll get, it’s better than nothing.
And then Katalin starts toward me, flushed and furious under her wolf’s hood. I keep one hand steady on my bow, and the other goes to the pocket of my cloak, searching for the braid curled there. My mother’s hair is warm and feels like silk beneath my fingers, even though it’s been separated from her body for more than fifteen years.
Before she can reach me, Virág’s voice rings out through the woods, loud enough to startle the birds from their nests.
“Évike! Katalin! Come!”
Boróka thins her mouth at me. “You might have just earned a lashing.”
“Or worse,” I say, though my stomach swoops at the possibility, “she’ll scold me with another story.”
Perhaps both. Virág is particularly vicious on Woodsman days.
Katalin brushes past me with unnecessary force, our shoulders clacking painfully. I don’t rise to the slight, because Virág is watching both of us with her hawk’s wicked stare, and the vein on the old woman’s forehead is throbbing especially hard. Boróka takes my hand as we trudge out of the woods and toward Keszi in the distance, the wooden huts with their reed roofs smudged like black thumbprints against the sunset. Behind us, the forest of Ezer Szem makes its perfunctory noises: a sound like a loud exhale, and then a sound like someone gasping for breath after breaching the surface of the water. Ezer Szem bears little resemblance to the other forests in Régország. It’s larger than all the rest put together, and it hums with its own arboreal heartbeat. The trees have a tendency to uproot themselves when they sense danger, or even when someone ruffles their branches a little too hard. Once, a girl accidentally set fire to a sapling, and a whole copse of elms walked off in protest, leaving the village exposed to both wind and Woodsmen.
Still, we love our finicky forest, not least because of the protections it affords us. If any more than a dozen men at once tried to hack their way through, the trees would do worse than just walk off. We only take precautions against
our most cowardly oaks, our most sheepish poplars.
As we get closer, I can see that Keszi is full of light and noise, the way it always is around sundown. There’s a different tenor to it now, though: something frenetic. A group of boys have gathered our scrawny horses, brushing their coats until they shine, and braiding their manes so they match the Woodsmen’s steeds. Our horses don’t have the pedigree of the king’s, but they clean up nicely. The boys glance down at the ground as I pass by, and even the horses eye me with prickling animal suspicion. My throat tightens.
Some girls and women polish their blades, humming softly. Other women run after their children, checking to make sure there are no stains on their tunics or holes in their leather shoes. We can’t afford to look hungry or weak or frightened. The smell of gulyás wafts toward me from someone’s pot, making my stomach cry out with longing. We won’t eat until after the Woodsmen have gone.
When there is one less mouth to feed.
On the left, my mother’s old hut stands like a hulking grave marker, silent and cold. Another woman lives there now with her two children, huddling around the same hearth where my mother once huddled with me. Listening to the rain drum against the reed roof as summer storms snarled through the tree branches, counting the beats between rumbles of thunder. I remember the particular curve of my mother’s cheek, illuminated in the moments when lightning fissured across the sky.
It’s the oldest hurt, but raw as a still-gasping wound. I touch my mother’s braid again, running my fingers over its contours, high and low again, like the hills and valleys of Szarvasvár. Boróka’s grip on my other hand tightens as she
pulls me along.
When we reach Virág’s hut, Boróka leans forward to embrace me. I hug her back, the fur of her wolf cloak bristling under my palms.
“I’ll see you afterward,” she says. “For the feast.”
Her voice is strained, low. I don’t have to fear being taken, but that doesn’t mean seeing the Woodsmen is easy. We’ve all done our own silent calculations—how many girls, and what are the chances that a Woodsman’s eye might land on your mother or sister or daughter or friend? Perhaps I’m lucky to have very little worth losing.
Still, I want to tell Boróka how ferociously glad I am to have one friend at all. She could have slipped in beside Katalin, another cruel and faceless body in a wolf cloak, hurling their barbed words. But thinking that way makes me feel small and pitiful, like a dog nosing the ground for dropped food. I give Boróka’s hand a squeeze instead, and watch her go with a tightness in my chest.
Virág’s hut stands on the outskirts of the village, close enough that the forest could reach out and brush it with its knotted fingertips. The wood of the hut is termite-pitted and crusted with lichen, and the reed roof is flimsy, ancient. Smoke chuffs from the doorway in fat gray clouds, making my eyes water. Her bone chimes rattle violently as I step through the threshold, but I haven’t paid enough attention to her lectures to know whether it’s a good omen or not. A message from Isten, or a warning from Ördög. I’ve never been sure either would look favorably at me in any case.
Katalin is already inside, sitting cross-legged on the ground beside Virág. The hearth is blazing, and the room is dense with woodsmoke. My own straw bed is crammed in the corner, and I hate that Katalin can see it, the one small and shameful thing that is mine and mine alone. The herbs garlanding Virág’s wooden shelves are ones that I picked myself, crawling belly-flat on the forest floor and cursing her with every breath. Now Virág beckons me toward her, all six fingers of her wizened hand curling.
Unlike other girls, seers are marked at birth, with white hair or extra fingers or some other oddity. Virág even has an extra row of teeth, needle-sharp and lodged in her gums like pebbles in a muddy riverbed. Katalin was spared these indignities, of course.
“Come, Évike,” Virág says. “I need my hair braided before the ceremony.”
The way she calls it a ceremony makes me flush hot with anger. She may as well call it a burial rite. Yet I bite my tongue and sit down beside her, fingers working through the tangled strands of her hair, white with power and eternity. Virág is nearly as old as Keszi itself.
“Shall I remind you why the Woodsmen come?” Virág asks.
“I know the story well,” Katalin says demurely.
I scowl at her. “We’ve heard it a hundred times before.”
“Then you’ll hear it a hundred and one, lest you forget why Keszi stands alone and untarnished in a kingdom that worships a new god.”
Virág has a propensity for morbid theatrics. In truth, Keszi is one of a handful of small villages pockmarked throughout Ezer Szem, bands of near-impenetrable forest separating us from our sisters and brothers. Keszi is the closest to the edge of the wood, though, and so we alone bear the burden of the Woodsmen. I tie off Virág’s braids with a strip of leather and resist the urge to correct her.
I could recite her whole story from memory, with the same pauses and intonations, with the same gravity in my voice. More than a century ago, everyone in Régország worshipped our gods. Isten, the sky god, who created half the world. Hadak Ura, who guided warriors toward their killing blows. And Ördög, god of the Under-World, whom we grudgingly acknowledge as the creator of the world’s more unsavory half.
Then the Patrifaith arrived, borne by the soldiers and holy men that marched north from the Vespasian Peninsula. We speak of it like a disease, and King István was most horribly afflicted. Spurred by his nascent and feverish devotion, he spread the Patrifaith across all four regions of Régország, killing any man or woman who refused to worship the Prinkepatrios. Followers of the old gods—now called by the new, derisive term pagans—fled into the forest of Ezer Szem, building small villages where they hoped to keep their faith in peace, and armoring themselves with the old gods’ magic.
“Please, Virág,” I beg. “Don’t make me hear it again.”
“Hush now,” she chides. “Have the patience of the great hero Vilmötten when he followed the long stream to the Far North.”
“Yes, hush now, Évike,” Katalin cuts in gleefully. “Some of us care very much about the history of our people. My people—”
Virág silences her with a glare before I can lunge toward her and show her how much damage I can do, magic or not. Almost unconsciously, my hand goes to the other pocket of my cloak, fingering the grooved edges of the golden coin nestled inside. For the briefest moment I really do love Virág, even with all the scars from her lashings latticed across the back of my thighs.
“No fighting today,” she says. “Let’s not do our enemy’s job for them.”
She smiles then, extra eyeteeth glinting in the firelight, and the smoke rises in dark clouds around her, as if it’s streaming from her skull. Her mouth forms the shape of the words, but she never makes a sound: her eyes roll back in her head and she slumps over, newly plaited hair slipping from my hands like water.
Katalin lurches toward her, but it’s too late. Virág writhes on the floor, her neck bent at an odd angle, as though an invisible hand is twisting the notches of her spine. Her chest rises in ragged spasms, breathing dirt—her visions look like someone being buried alive, the fruitless, manic struggle as the earth closes over your head and your lungs fill with soil. Katalin chokes back a sob.
I know what she’s thinking: It could be me. The visions come without warning, and without mercy. I feel the barest twinge of pity now, as I gather Virág’s head into my arms.
Virág’s eyes shut. The quaking stops, and she lies as still as a corpse, dirt matted in her white hair. When her eyes open again, they are thankfully, blessedly blue.
Relief floods through me, but it vanishes again in an instant. Virág pushes up from the ground, seizing Katalin by the shoulders, all twelve of her fingers clawing at the fur of her wolf cloak.
“The Woodsmen,” she gasps. “They’re coming for you.”
Excerpted from The Wolf and the Woodsman, copyright © 2021 by Ava Reid.