“In all your life, your only choice,” Aunt Léonie said to her once, “is the path of needles or the path of pins.”
Rachelle remembered that, the day that she killed her.
When Rachelle was twelve years old, Aunt Léonie picked her to become the village’s next woodwife.
Rachelle had been to her aunt’s cottage a hundred times before, but that morning she stood awkwardly straight and proper, hands clasped in front of her. Aunt Léonie knelt before her, wearing the white dress and red mantle of a woodwife.
“Child,” she said, and Rachelle’s spine stiffened because Aunt Léonie only called her that when she was in trouble, “do you know the purpose of a woodwife?”
“To weave the charms that protect the village,” Rachelle said promptly. “And remember the ancient lore.”
Rachelle thought she would like weaving the yarn through her fingers. She knew she would love learning the old tales. But she wished that woodwives still went on quests. She wanted to live the stories, not just tell them to the village children.
“And who was the first woodwife?” asked Aunt Léonie.
“Zisa,” said Rachelle. “Because she was the first person to protect anyone from the Great Forest, when she and Tyr killed the Devourer.”
“And who is the Devourer?” asked Aunt Léonie.
“The god of the forestborn,” said Rachelle. “Father Pierre says he doesn’t really exist, or anyway he’s not a god, because there is only one God, and he made heaven and earth; he doesn’t try to eat them. But whatever the Devourer was, he had the sun and the moon in his belly until Tyr and Zisa stole them and put them in the sky.”
Father Pierre said that wasn’t true either, but Rachelle didn’t see how he could be so sure when he hadn’t been there three thousand years ago. And she liked that part of the story.
“He is the everlasting hunger,” said Aunt Léonie in a voice of grim resignation. “And yes, once he held all the world in darkness, and once all mankind was ruled by the forestborn, who hunted us like rabbits.”
A thread of uneasiness slid through her stomach. “Tyr and Zisa killed the Devourer,” she said. “Zisa died, and Tyr became king.”
“No,” said Aunt Léonie. “Tyr and Zisa only bound him. And that binding is nearly worn out.”
She said the words so simply, it was a moment before Rachelle understood them, before she felt the awful, sickening lurch of real fear.
Quietly, relentlessly, Aunt Léonie went on, “One day soon he will open his eyes and yawn, and then he will swallow up the moon and the sun, and we shall live in darkness once again.” She met Rachelle’s eyes. “Do you believe me, child?”
“Yes,” said Rachelle as her heart beat, No, please, no, but when she met Aunt Léonie’s eyes, she had to think, Maybe.
It’s all right, she told herself. Aunt Léonie will save us.
But Aunt Léonie didn’t plan to save anyone.
For three years, Rachelle sat obediently braiding charms in the cottage. She learned to ward off fever and keep mice out of grain, and to prevent woodspawn—the animals born in the Great Forest, suffused with its power—from wandering into the village and attacking people. But none of it mattered, because when the Devourer returned, no charm would be strong enough to protect anyone. Aunt Léonie told her so again and again.
“What can we do?” Rachelle always asked.
Aunt Léonie would only shrug. “Sometimes abiding is more important than doing.”
Zisa hadn’t abided. Zisa had fought the Devourer and saved the whole world, but apparently woodwives weren’t supposed to save people anymore. They were supposed to sit in their cottages and braid insignificant charms and never, ever dream of changing the world.
Rachelle clenched her teeth and furiously dreamed. Every day the cottage felt more like a prison.
Until one day she was walking home from Aunt Léonie’s cottage and she realized that something had changed. The shadows had grown deeper; the blue flowers by the side of the path had begun to glow. The wind felt like fingertips tracing her neck. Shadowy, phantom mushrooms studded the ground; a deer made out of black cloud peered at her from between the trees, its eyes glowing red.
She blinked and it was gone, but her heart was thudding and her veins buzzing. She had seen the Forest. Not just the woods around her village—she had seen a glimpse of the Great Forest, the Wood Behind the Wood. You could wander for days beneath the trees and never see it, because it was not part of the human world; it was a secret, hidden place that sat just a little to the side. But sometimes its power trickled and oozed out through the shadows of tree leaves or the hollows carved by tree roots and brought the mortal woods to uncanny life.
Usually it could only be seen on solstice nights. Aunt Léonie had told her that. But maybe those rules were wearing down, like the bonds upon the Devourer.
And then she heard a voice, like butter and burned honey: “Good afternoon, little girl.”
Between two trees stood a man, shadowed against the glow of the setting sun behind him. She couldn’t see his face.
Then he took a step forward, and she realized that he was not a man. He had a human face, pale and narrow. He wore a dark, rough cloak like any villager might wear. But she could sense the predatory, inhuman power beneath his skin. When she glanced away from him, she couldn’t remember anything about his face except that it was lovely.
She looked back, and his eyes met hers, glittering and alien. He was a forestborn: one of the humans who pleased the Devourer, accepted him as their lord, and were remade by his power into something not quite human anymore.
“Little girl,” he said, “where are you going?”
Her heart was making desperate spasms, but Zisa hadn’t been afraid, or at any rate hadn’t let it stop her. They said Zisa had learned from the forestborn themselves how to defeat the Devourer.
Maybe Rachelle could do the same thing.
He was only a pace away from the path now, the path that was lined in little white stones to protect it.
“Little girl,” he said, “what path are you taking?”
“The path of needles,” she whispered. “Not the path of pins.”
And she stepped toward him off the path. Her mind was a white-hot blur. She couldn’t even tell anymore if she was afraid. She only knew that he was part of the shadow that had lain across her world all her life, and she wouldn’t run from him, she wouldn’t. So she stared into his fathomless, inhuman eyes and said, “You can kill me, but you can’t hunt me.”