Excerpt Reveal: After the Forest by Kell Woods




Excerpt Reveal: After the Forest by Kell Woods

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after the forest by kell woods

After the Forest is a dark and enchanting fantasy debut from Kell Woods that explores the repercussions of a childhood filled with magic and a young woman contending with the truth of “happily ever after.”

Ginger. Honey. Cinnamon. Flour.

Twenty years after the witch in the gingerbread house, Greta and Hans are struggling to get by. Their mother and stepmother are long dead, Hans is deeply in debt from gambling, and the countryside lies in ruin, its people starving in the aftermath of a brutal war.

Greta has a secret, though: the witch’s grimoire, hidden away and whispering in Greta’s ear for the past two decades, and the recipe inside that makes the best gingerbread you’ve ever tasted. As long as she can bake, Greta can keep her small family afloat.

But in a village full of superstition, Greta and her mysteriously addictive gingerbread, not to mention the rumors about her childhood misadventures, is a source of gossip and suspicion.

And now, dark magic is returning to the woods and Greta’s magic—magic she is still trying to understand—may be the only thing that can save her. If it doesn’t kill her first.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of After the Forest by Kell Woods, on sale 10/3/23

Forest Fair

Lindenfeld, the Black Forest

April 1650

Once upon a time, in a land where the winter snows fall thick

and deep, a young viscountess sat sewing by her window. She

was content. She carried a child, her first, and her husband was

home again after long years away at war. As she sewed, the lady

pricked her finger with her needle. Three bright drops of blood, a

deep and startling crimson, fell upon the snow lining the ebony

window ledge. The three together—black, white, red—were such

a pretty sight that the viscountess smiled and whispered a little spell

to herself. A daughter, she charmed. With hair as black as the ebony

frame, lips as red as blood, and skin as fair as winter snow.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

It is a delicate thing, the smoking of a wild-bee hive. There is a rhythm to it that cannot be rushed, a knowing: of the bees themselves, of flame and air, of the seasons. Greta Rosenthal had done it so often she had ceased to think upon it. She merely pressed a hand to the old beech tree in greeting—it was always wise to respect the elders of the forest—knotted her skirts, checked the satchel hanging at her shoulder, and began to climb, her bare toes slipping easily into the notches cut into the smooth, silver-grey bark.

The hive nestled high in the tree’s heart. Greta propped herself between two branches and listened. The murmur of moving leaves, the ceaseless hum that signaled the bees’ contentedness. Satisfied, she drew a handful of green pine needles and an ember encased in river-damp moss from the satchel, breathed gentle life back into the latter, and lit the needles. The tang of burning pine filled her nose as she tucked the ember away and carefully, carefully, slid aside the board covering the hive’s entrance. Within, hundreds of bees coated swaths of golden comb in a warm, moving mass. Greta held the burning needles close. The spring air was warm and gentle, and it was not long before the bees succumbed to the smoke’s sleepy spell. She drew her knife from her belt and cut away a slab of comb, tucking it into her satchel. She raised the knife to cut more, then paused, faltering as a wave of sudden faintness washed over her. Greta fumbled for the tree, balance lost, breath hissing as she sliced her own hand.

Three bright drops of blood, a deep and startling crimson, fell onto her apron.

She stared at it, removed from the pain, fascinated by the sight of the blood mingling with honey and the remnants of the morning’s baking—ginger and cinnamon, rose water and cloves—upon the pale linen. A bitter taste rose in her mouth. Her throat burned and her gaze blurred, until it was not an apron she was seeing, but a spreading of winter snow. Not her blood, but someone else’s. Three drops, and more.

Much, much more.

She removed the coif from her hair and used it to bind her hand, then forced herself to cut the honeycomb she had come for, clumsily thrusting the sticky chunks into the satchel along with her knife. For a heart’s beat her eyes cleared, and she glimpsed a shadow through the trees below.

A shadow in the shape of a woman.

Greta gasped, lost her footing, and fell. The powdery crunch of snow beneath her, a surge of cold, the breath pushed from her lungs. Black branches above, and a winter-grey sky. Then, nothing.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

Spring-green leaves sharpened slowly against a blue sky. The scent of crushed larkspurs, and the drowsy hum of the bees. Greta sat up gingerly, tested each of her limbs. Nothing damaged. Her satchel lay nearby. She slipped its strap over her shoulder and got to her feet, brushing the forest from her skirt.

When had the birds stopped singing? Greta had the distinct sensation that she was not alone. That someone, or something, was watching her. The air at the back of her neck turned to ice. Slow as winter, she turned.

The bear was enormous. Larger, surely, than any of God’s creatures had a right to be. The mound of muscle atop its sloping shoulders reared tall as a common man. Its black fur gleamed. It gave a long, dusky breath, then, horribly, swung toward her, enormous paws strangely silent on the forest floor. Closer and closer it came, until Greta felt its warm breath, and smelled its earthy, animal scent. Her heart crashed against her ribs. Her body screamed at her to run, to get down the mountain and behind the safety of her own door. But she remembered tales from the hunt. Wolves, boars . . . any predator will attack when its prey flees. It is instinct; a command surging in the blood, nameless and ancient.

To run is to die.

The bear nosed Greta’s sticky-sweet hand, licking the honey away. It was gentle as a lamb. And yet, one strike was all it would take. A single blow with one huge paw to kill her where she stood.

Fear crushed her in its claws. The world filled with muscle and fur as the bear shunted yet closer. Would it devour her now, or drag her, half dead, into the woods? Wisdom failed. She staggered backward, tripped, and sprawled on her rump in the ferns. Curled herself up and cowered against the earth. Words came to her, unbidden, tumbling from her mouth.

Leaf that’s green, earth and air,

Protect me, forest fair.”

She took a rasping breath.

“Darkness, devil, death and fear

Get thee gone from here.”

They were old words, and strange, springing forth from the depths of her memory like startled birds, but they were good. Her mother had taught them to her, of that much she was certain, though Greta could not say when, or why. She said the words again, faster.

Leaf that’s green, earth and air,

Protect me, forest fair.

Darkness, devil, death and fear

Get thee gone from here.”

Again, and again, each time waiting for the bear’s claws to rake her body, for its teeth to tear into the back of her neck. Hours passed, it seemed. Days, months, years. At last, when the flood of mother-prayer finally faded, Greta opened her eyes. She saw her own hand—a beetle crawling merrily across one knuckle—and strands of her hair, copper-bright. She raised her head. But for the lingering scent of pine smoke, and the humming of the bees above, all was still. The bear was gone.

Copyright © 2023 from Kell Woods

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