Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
I was wearing my sister Gavotte’s face on the night the blighthunters came to our cottage. All eight of us were crowded around the table, waging a fierce poetry battle to decide who would get the last slice of Da’s gooseberry pie. Indigo was arguing passionately that “savage” really did rhyme with “cabbage,” which was probably why none of us noticed the threat except Sonnet, who didn’t care for gooseberries.
“There’s someone coming down the lane.” Sonnet rose from the table and went to peer through the diamond-pane window beside the door.
A spark of worry nibbled at me. Hardly anyone came all the way out to our farm. We were too close to the Mirrorwood. Our cozy cottage—a bit ramshackle with the extra rooms tacked on over the years to handle three sets of twins—lay on the farthest edge of town. If you stood in just the right spot, you could see the enormous wall of thorns bristling along the northern hills. A prickly promise, meant to bind away the magic of the blighted realm and keep it from tainting the rest of the world.
But it hadn’t worked. Magic still escaped. Dribs and drabs, like the spatters of madder and saffron that flecked Mum’s apron after a day working her dye pots. Fragments of raw blight that warped whatever—whomever—they touched. Twists, we called them. You might suddenly sprout wings or claws. Your skin might turn to flames or ice.
No wonder folks were scared of it. I would be too. That is, if I weren’t already blighted.
For me, the greatest danger wasn’t the thorns or the corrupting magic. It was being discovered by those who thought anything touched by the twists had to be destroyed: blighthunters. The crimson-coated warriors trained to fight and kill people like me. But surely there was no reason for hunters to visit our farm.
“Is it Aunt Nesta?” I asked hopefully. She was family. She knew my secret. She was safe.
“No,” said Sonnet. Her shoulders were stiff, and there was a note of wary tension in her voice. “There’s two of them. Riding horses.”
Da and Mum exchanged a look. Mum’s lips had gone tight. “Allegra,” Mum said to my twin sister. “Best be ready, just in case.”
Allegra groaned. “It’s not my turn. Can’t Fable go upstairs? It’s probably just another peddler.”
I started to push away from the table. “It’s okay. I’ll go. But if they’re selling charms against the blight, buy me one,” I added, trying to make a joke of it.
No one laughed. Indigo was glowering at Allegra. “Ease up, Leg. It’s not Fable’s fault. One extra day won’t do you harm.”
“Oh, I know exactly how much harm it does.”
She didn’t look at me, but I flinched anyway. Allegra was my twin sister, and I knew she loved me. But you can love someone and still be angry at them. Not that I blamed her, after what I’d done to her for the first five years of our lives.
Sonnet, still at the window, drew in a sharp breath. “They’re wearing red coats.”
No one spoke. No one moved. Hunters wore red.
“Everyone stay calm,” said Mum, her voice brisk and businesslike, as if she were negotiating the price of her wool. “We’ll handle it like we always do.”
A chilly pit had opened in my belly. We’d had close calls with hunters before. Last summer my brother Thespian had to truss me up in a burlap sack and carry me over his shoulder, pretending I was a lumpy bag of turnips, in order to pass a hunter on the road to Aunt Nesta’s. But they’d never come to our house. And I hardly ever left our family farm. The last time I’d seen anyone other than family was… oh. Oh no.
Last week. I’d been out gathering wild strawberries at the edge of the northern woods. The miller’s son had passed by along the old hunters’ trail. I’d run as soon as I saw him. But had he seen me?
More importantly, had he seen the face I was wearing?
I couldn’t answer those questions. All I could do was try to be what I’d always been: Allegra’s identical twin. I gulped, looking at my sister.
“Go on, then, take it.” She slid closer along the bench, wearing a look of grim resignation that stabbed me in the gut. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t want this either. I’d give anything not to be like this.
“Sorry,” I whispered, cringing at just how useless the word was, after everything I’d already done to her. Everything my blight had taken. “Sorry” would never be enough.
She only closed her eyes, bracing herself. I reached out to brush my fingers against her cheek.
That was all it took. My curse, my blight, woke hungrily. Buzzing warmth rippled up my arm, my neck, tingling across my face as skin shimmered, bone shifted, and my face reshaped itself. The wavy brown hair I’d borrowed from Gavotte lightened to Allegra’s honey blond. My nose shrank, turning snub. A heartbeat later, and no one would have guessed that I was anything other than Allegra’s identical twin.
Only my family knew the truth: that I was a blighted face stealer.
Allegra whimpered, gripping the edge of the table as if someone had just torn away a bit of her soul. That was how she’d described it, the one time I dared ask her how it felt. Thespian had tried to tell me it wasn’t bad, like standing up too fast and getting a head rush, but I think he was just trying to make me feel better. Allegra always told the truth, even when it hurt.
I scooted back along the bench, giving her space. No one else said anything. Mum and Da had never made a fuss over my face stealing. I think they wanted to pretend it was an everyday thing, like feeding the chickens or washing the dishes. Not a curse that could have me and my entire family imprisoned, or worse.
I ran a hand over my hair. Allegra’s hair. It would be fine. Hunters had never visited our house before, but we’d practiced how to handle it. Just act normal. Absolutely normal.
“They’ve hitched their horses at the post,” said Sonnet. Mum went to wait with her by the door, while Da cleared away the dishes and Gavotte covered the last slice of pie with a napkin. Thespian sat at the end of the table, watching me out of the corner of his eye, the way our sheepdogs watched the flock.
I knotted my hands together, feeling utterly miserable. Moth sprang up onto my lap, butting his head against my fingers and purring. I cuddled him closer, his warm weight steadying me, as usual. Making it easier to breathe, to think.
Do not worry, his voice whispered in my mind. If the hunters try to take you, I will slash out their eyes.
“My sweet, bloodthirsty fluff.” I skritched him between the ears until his purr became a deep drone.
“Oh, yes, talk to your cat,” said Indigo dryly. “That’ll convince the hunters there’s nothing to investigate.”
“Lots of people talk to their cats.”
Indigo arched a brow. “But how many of the cats talk back?”
I ignored them. No one could hear Moth except me, in any case. And right now he was the only thing keeping me from falling into a complete panic.
Sonnet returned to the table, sliding onto the bench beside me, her shoulder bumping mine. “Remember what I taught you, Fey? If they grab you, go for the eyes. Or the throat. Or the instep.” Her hands, resting on her thighs, were clenched into tight fists. It made something sharp claw at my throat. I didn’t want my family to have to do this. To risk themselves for me.
Sonnet’s eyes fixed on the door. A moment later, a thump rattled the heavy oak.
Mum squared her shoulders, then reached for the handle, swinging it open. “Good evening,” she said, her voice cool and calm. “How can we help you?”
“Good evening, madam,” said the man on the doorstep. I couldn’t see much of him, only the way his tall shadow fell over my mother. His voice was as cool and chilly as deep-buried stone. “Might my apprentice and I come in? I don’t wish to trouble your family, but it would help us greatly if we could ask a few questions.”
Dread shivered through me. The miller’s son. He had seen me last week, out by the strawberry meadow.
If I’d been wearing Allegra’s face—or any of my siblings’, really—I’d have waved and called a hullo. There wasn’t such a great difference in size between us, though Sonnet and Thespian had both shot up since they’d turned sixteen over the winter. Even so, I could still pass myself off as them, from a distance.
But that day I had been wearing my father’s face. Including his long, luxurious brown beard. I was a good two feet shorter than him, so on me, it fell to my belly button. Indigo said it made me look like an overgrown gnome. So instead of waving and hulloing, I’d run, sprinting off into the woods like a startled rabbit.
I hadn’t told anyone about it. The boy hadn’t chased after me, so no harm done. Besides, if I told my parents, they might decide not to let me wander the wilds anymore, and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my last bit of freedom. It was too dangerous for me to go to town: I couldn’t always control my blight, and the last thing I needed was to bump into someone at the market and accidentally steal their face. The farm, the fields, the woods, they were all I had. The only place that I could walk freely, breathe deep, feel like a normal twelve-year-old girl.
Clearly, I was mistaken.
If only I could sprint away now and lose myself in the green woods. But it was too late: Mum had already ushered the hunters inside. It would look suspicious to deny them. I sat stiffly, frozen in fear, as the two crimson-coated figures stepped into the large main room of our cottage. There were several empty chairs, but the hunters ignored them, choosing to stand before the hearth.
All the better to chase after anyone who tried to bolt.
“My name is Telmarque,” said the man. He was tall and bony, with white skin and sunken black eyes that made his hollow-cheeked face look disturbingly skeletal. “And this is my apprentice, Vycorax.” He nodded to the girl beside him.
She looked about my age, but the firm set of her jaw and her intent brown eyes made her seem older. So did the sword hanging from her belt. Even the scattering of freckles across her brown cheeks didn’t soften her.
Her eyes narrowed. She’d noticed me staring. I jerked my gaze away, desperately hoping she’d think I was just a curious farm girl who’d never seen a hunter up close.
“May we offer you some tea?” asked my father. “And we have walnut cakes.” Da probably would have offered tea to the demon prince of the Mirrorwood if he showed up on our doorstep, he was so unfailingly polite.
But Telmarque waved aside the offer. “No. We must attend our work. The evils of the blight do not rest.”
Moth settled himself more comfortably into my lap, and I fought a wild, desperate laugh at the irony of it. But there was a sting, too. I didn’t think I was evil. But I hurt people. Hurt my own family, every day of every week. So maybe he was right.
Mum cleared her throat. “Then, please, let us know how we can help you be on your way.”
“We’ve had word of a strange creature spotted in the woods near here. A young man from the village encountered it last week. A foul, hairy beast.”
I stifled a huff. Da’s face might be a bit hairy, but he wasn’t foul.
The hunter continued. “Small but vicious, he said. He managed to chase it off, but it’s still out there.” Telmarque’s lip curled, and he set one hand on the hilt of his sword as he spoke. “Have any of you seen something like this?”
He fixed each of us in turn with a skeletal stare. The air in the room seemed to have thickened, grown dim and chilly as a winter fog. We all shook our heads.
“Be very certain. We must find this beast and destroy it. We cannot afford to risk the taint spreading.”
“Is that how it works?” asked Indigo, innocently arching their eyebrows. “I thought the twists from the woods caused the blight.”
“Indeed,” said Telmarque. “But anything blighted is tainted with the evil of the Mirrorwood and must be destroyed.”
Mum shot Indigo a warning look, but they continued on, irrepressible. “Wouldn’t it be better to go after the source? You seem to have plenty of sharp, pointy things. Can’t you go inside the Mirrorwood and use them on the demon prince to stop all this for good?”
Silence. A weight like storm clouds settled over the room. Telmarque narrowed his eyes at Indigo. “Hunters have tried. Tried and died. The thorns refuse entry to all, as you well know. This isn’t some bard’s fantasy.”
“Very true,” said Indigo. “You’re clearly not the princess with a heart as pure as snow.”
Telmarque’s jaw clenched dangerously. Indigo never could resist a sly comment. And worse, they were doing it for me. Defending me. And risking the attention of the hunters in the process.
“I saw something,” I blurted out. “Yesterday.”
It worked. Telmarque fixed his gaze on me, like a knife stabbing a choice but slippery bit of meat. “What?” he demanded. “What did you see?”
“I thought it was a bear. It was over to the east, on Hay Hill.” I held my breath. Please. Please let them think the foul, hairy beast was only a bear.
The apprentice Vycorax cleared her throat, straightening her shoulders before she spoke for the first time. Her voice had edges, carving out her words, claiming them. “I already searched Hay Hill, sir. There wasn’t anything there.”
“We’ll search again,” snapped Telmarque. He gave a curt nod. “Thank you for your time. If we have other questions, we will return.”
The words felt like a threat, whether or not he meant them that way. Telmarque strode toward the door. “Come, Vycorax. Let us see what you missed.”
The girl stiffened. She glanced at me, the furrow between her brows deepening, before hastening after the elder hunter.
Slowly, Mum closed the door behind them. We sat, not speaking, not moving, as if even a small sound might draw the hunters back. Finally Mum let out a soft sigh. “They’re gone. Riding east.”
Gavotte punched her twin in their shoulder. “Indigo! What were you thinking?”
Indigo crossed their arms, looking unrepentant. “I was thinking that craven ham-wit ought to stop bullying innocent people and go fight some actual evil if he’s so slobbery over it.”
Mum sighed. “It would’ve been better to say nothing at all.” She flicked me a worried look.
My heart pinched. “I just wanted them to go,” I said. “It’ll be okay, won’t it? They’ll go to Hay Hill and won’t find anything. Or they’ll just think the boy in the woods saw the bear too.”
“Ah, yes, the bear,” said Da. “You know, I hear that bears are great fans of gooseberry pie.” He nudged the last piece toward me, smiling.
But I could see the worry in his eyes. I could feel it all around me, a sticky, sickening heaviness in the air. It matched the fog of fear in my chest. This was my fault. All I’d wanted was to pick strawberries, and instead I’d brought blighthunters to the farm.
“Thanks, Da, but I’m not hungry.” I scooped Moth into my arms as I stood. “Besides, Indigo had the best limerick. I’m going to bed.”
“It’s a clear night,” Gavotte offered, watching me in that way of hers, like she could see the color of my thoughts. “You were going to show us the new constellation you found in that book of star charts you’re always poring over. The Nose Picker?”
“The Rose Picker,” I said, though I was pretty sure she knew the real name. She was trying to make a joke of it, to cheer me up. And I loved her for it. Loved all of them.
“Thanks, Gav, but I’m not in the mood for stargazing,” I said, retreating up the stairs. “Good night.”
My family had always bound tight, protecting me, even letting me borrow their faces to hide my secret. To keep the red wolves away.
But they couldn’t keep me safe forever. Eventually, the wolves would catch me. And if I didn’t do something, they would catch my family, too.