Chapter 1


The Frog in the Forest

Aelin’s gaze traveled beyond the garden’s low wall and across a lake of grass to where the old oak stood. From its lowest branch dangled their homemade red flag, swaying gently in the summer breeze. Further out still was the stand of maple and ash that marked the end of her family’s land. She could see no sign of her big brother anywhere. She took a deep breath and ran for the flag, sprinting along the path, eyes fixed on the red cloth. She’d nearly made it to the gap in the wall when something caught her ankle and sent her sprawling into the dirt. She groaned and rolled over to look at her grinning brother. Finn was lying on the ground behind the last row of strawberry plants. His dark, tousled hair was flecked with green. Soil clung to one side of his face. He was still half-covered by the grey tarp he’d been hiding beneath. Aelin kicked at the hand still clutched around her ankle. “Look at what you did!” she yelled, getting to her feet. She held her dirt-crusted, bloody elbows out towards Finn. “I’m gonna tell Ma!” The scrapes on her knees and elbows burned. Tears gathered into the corners of her eyes and she wiped them away. “You big baby.” Finn stood up and stretched, leaving the tarp to fall into a pile at his feet. His shins poked out beneath the hem of his trousers. The trousers were his newest pair, but there was no keeping up with Finn. He was already a full head taller than her and gaining every day. She resented every inch between them. 1

“That’s nothing!” he went on, shaking loose the dirt from his hair. Bits of leaves floated down towards his feet. “Remember when I fell off the bridge—” “You jumped off the bridge!” Aelin’s hands curled into fists. Finn ignored her. “It was a lot worse than that.” He threw a dismissive arm her way. “And I never complained to Ma.” “Yes you did! All the time!” He shrugged. “I can’t help it if she cares more about me since I’m her real child.” She struck out with her foot, just missing Finn’s ankle. “Can’t you ever think of something else to say? That doesn’t bother me anymore.” “Then why’d you try to kick me?” Finn sneered. Aelin jammed her hands into her pockets, feigning defeat. She dug around with her fingers, pushing aside snails and shriveled flower buds until her right hand landed upon the cool, smooth stone. She’d found it earlier that day and thought it the perfect skipping stone. Now she had another use for it. “Because it’s fun.” As the last word escaped her lips she threw the stone. It whizzed past Finn’s head, nicking his ear. Her brother’s jaw dropped as though his ear had been the latch keeping it shut. She turned and ran. The tarp rustled behind her. Its noise was followed by a loud grunt. She dared a look over her shoulder and saw a red-faced Finn on the ground, wrestling the tarp off of his feet. She hooted laughter as he screamed, “You’ll pay for that!”


She raced towards the barn, having no doubt that Finn meant it. Her only hope was to avoid him until their mother called them in for dinner. Otherwise, she might wish she’d kept the stone for skipping. The barn was dark beyond its open doorway and silent; all of the animals were out to pasture. Finn’s yells grew louder. Aelin ran past the empty stalls and into the last one where their gelding usually resided. She plucked a low loose board from the wall and crawled on her belly out into the grass behind the barn. She pulled the board back into place, then looked through the knothole beside it. The barn’s doorway framed Finn’s skinny silhouette. He took a furtive step inside. That was all she needed. She ran across the grass to the oak in the middle of the clearing. Its lowest branch was within easy reach. As she pulled herself up, she calculated how long it would take Finn to find her in the tree. The barn would keep him busy for a while—he hadn’t found her secret exit yet. After the barn, the tree wouldn’t be his first guess, but it wouldn’t be his last either. She paused mid-climb, resting her stomach on the rough branch, and looked to the edge of the clearing. The trees separating their land from Farmer Allen’s offered shade and hiding places aplenty. She’d thought of hiding in the woods many times before, but their mother had forbidden it, warning them of creatures that made their homes in such darkness. But Aelin had never seen anything more sinister than a rabbit in these woods, and she knew townspeople who made their living in far greater tracts of forest. It seemed silly and superstitious to her, the more she thought about it. The anger she’d seen on her brother’s face had been real, and far more dangerous.


She dropped back to the ground. With one more glance at the barn, she took off across the grass towards the trees. She stopped just beneath their canopy. It was cooler here. Twigs and leaves crackled underneath her feet. She ducked behind a wide maple at the woods’ edge. A thrill came over her as she caught her breath. She leaned her back against the maple’s trunk and smiled at the sun-dappled trees. Finn had never dared. And it was not so scary here. She might even consider going deeper into the woods. Another day, she decided. She turned around and waited for Finn to appear.

Aelin crouched behind the maple tree, watching her brother circle their stone cottage in frustration. From this distance he was no more than the size of her thumbnail. She had found the perfect hiding place. She stood up to stretch. The sun hovered just over the western woods. She was grateful that it was nearly suppertime; she was beginning to feel bored and hungry. Finn hadn’t so much as glanced towards the trees. She watched her brother in the grassy clearing, chasing shadows, and grew sad thinking about how this was to be his last summer before he went to work for the miller. Even when she hated Finn, she wanted him near. If only their lives could stay like they were now: chores and sometimes school in the mornings, and afternoons of play. Though, given a choice, she’d do without the chores and school. As she watched him, Finn darted around the broad trunk of the solitary old oak with his arms outstretched, no doubt hoping to find her there and catch hold of her. He caught nothing but air, and then tripped over a hump-backed root.


Aelin giggled. Behind her something stirred and she turned, startled. The light had gone murky in the woods. Only a few spare glimmers of sun sluiced their way into its depths. The gnarled figures of the trees leaned towards each other as though frozen midconspiracy. Their quiet stillness seemed of another world than the one she inhabited with her sweating palms and racing heart. Her mother’s warning rang in her ear. Just as she was about to turn away, a small, dark shape flung itself towards her from the shadows. She shrieked and fell back against the maple. The thing at her feet stared up at her with luminous red eyes. She saw now that it was only a frog, its skin black and glossy, camouflaged by the mottled forest floor. She sighed with relief, then remembered her brother. Luckily, it seemed Finn hadn’t heard her shout. He was nowhere to be seen, probably searching the barn again. The frog let out a rattling croak. Aelin bent down to see it better. It was nearly twice the width of her palm. Its eyes shone as though there were a lamp inside its skull, casting light through a red-tinted veil. “Well, aren’t you a strange fellow?” she whispered. The unusual frog would cause quite a stir at school. It might even fetch a fair price at the market. She slowly reached her hand towards it. The frog didn’t move. Its bulging eyes traveled down the length of her arm, stopping at her wrist, where a crescent-shaped birthmark stained her pale skin. She bit her lip and took a small, stealthy step. The frog’s eyes remained locked to her wrist but it was otherwise unmoving.


As her hand drew nearer, the red eyes widened and seemed to brighten. The flesh beneath its mouth swelled outward like a glistening boil. Aelin jerked her hand back just as the frog flicked a thick black tongue into the empty space where her hand had been. Unnerved, she scrambled up and away from the frog. Shadows swallowed its slimy body until all she could see of it were its unblinking eyes. “Stupid frog,” she said, then braced, half-fearing a response. She turned and ran into the golden light of the setting sun, prepared to take whatever punishment Finn delivered. He was waiting for her behind the old oak. “Got you!” he yelled, grabbing her arm as she tried to run past him. “Wait!” She tried to yank out of his grip. “There’s a frog—” “So?” “It has red eyes. In the woods.” She pointed towards the dark trees. “Liar! You weren’t in the woods.” “I was!” “Then go back,” he challenged. Aelin looked at the trees. In the failing light the shadows of the woods looked even more menacing. “Come with me.” “No. What are you afraid of? You were just there.” Finn’s evil grin stretched from ear to ear. She glanced back again. She shook her head. “I knew it,” Finn said. “You’d never go in there.” He let go of her arm. In the face of these new taunts, he’d forgotten all about his intended revenge. She supposed she was


lucky, but as she stared back at the woods, which now seemed a single vast shadow, she felt only disappointment.