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Deep Is the Fen

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Get lost in the newest fantasy from the author of A Hunger of Thorns, on a beguiling journey behind the closed doors of a sinister secret society. Featuring a steamy enemies-to-lovers romance and a fight for the witching world that will get your heart racing.

Merry doesn’t need a happily-ever-after. Her life in the charming, idyllic town of Candlecott is fine just as it is. Simple, happy, and with absolutely no magic. Magic only ever leads to trouble.

But Merry’s best friend, Teddy, is joining the Toadmen—a secret society who specialize in backward thinking and suspiciously supernatural traditions—and Merry is determined to stop him. Even if it means teaming up with the person she hates most: her academic archnemesis, Caraway Boswell, an ice-cold snob who hides his true face under a glamour.

An ancient Toad ritual is being held in the sinister Deeping Fen, and if Merry doesn’t rescue Teddy before it’s finished, she’ll lose him forever. But the Toadmen have been keeping dangerous secrets, and so has Caraway. The farther Merry travels into Deeping Fen’s foul waters, the more she wonders if she’s truly come to save her friend . . . or if she’s walking straight into a trap.

There’s nothing the Toadmen love more than a damsel  in distress.
1.


Teddy has filched a bottle of wassail from his da’s cellar. He pours it out like it’s liquid gold, and we each take a thimble-sized glass.

“To us,” he says, smiling at Sol and me. “The three best friends that ever were. To unshakable loyalty and unbreakable bonds. Happy Whitsuntide.”

Sol drums the floorboards with his heels, his cheeks glowing.

I love them both so much. I want to stay in this moment forever. The three of us, together and young and happy.

I look threadwise, refocusing my eyes slightly to see the mettle floating around us, silvery strands of life-force. I’m no witch, but I can see mettle, and recognize who or where it came from, in the same way I can track a rabbit or a fox in the woods. The mettle between the three of us is connected--intricately braided together over the years of our friendship. We’re inseparable, and that’s the way I want it to stay.

They’re waiting for me. I clink my glass against each of theirs, careful to make eye contact as I do so.

The wassail is as strong as it always is, all cloves and hyssop, and we each wince and gag, swallowing it like medicine.

Teddy holds out the bottle. “More?”

Sol makes a face. “Ugh, no.”

“Merry?”

I shake my head. Even that one thimble-sized glass is enough to make me feel warm and a bit blurry around the edges. But Teddy refills his own glass and downs it in one gulp.

We are ensconced in the sitting room in the house where Sol lives with his aunt, surrounded by open chip packets and cans of fizzy drink. We’ve been playing twlbwrdd--an enchanted Ilium set where the king piece crumbles to dust when he is captured and the maidens stain red if they get captured by a liegeman. We’ve been here since midafternoon, and Teddy and Sol have filled the air with the musky scent of teenage boy. I get up and open a window, breathing in the sweetness of the night. In the distance, I hear the faint jingling of bells, and the tramping of feet.

Whitsun Eve is our night. Our families are always off celebrating, either at the Rose and Crown, or in Da’s case at the Frater House with the other Toadmen. It’s a night steeped in ancient tradition, and we have our own traditions too. Battered haddock, scampi and scallops with chips and mushy peas from Branwyn’s fish shop. Cans of redcurrant fizz and packets of cheese puffs. We play games and just generally flop around and enjoy knowing that school is over and we have the whole glorious summer stretching before us.

“We should go camping,” I say. “Up to Dryad’s Saddle or farther, to Fish Creek. We could leave the day after tomorrow.”

“Watch your king,” Sol murmurs to Teddy.

“I can’t go until after next Thursday,” Teddy says, moving his king piece behind the shield wall.

“Why not?” I slide another maiden into position.

He hesitates for just a moment before answering. “I’m needed at the forge.”

Something in his tone is off. Teddy’s a terrible liar. I look over at Sol, who is busy studying the board, and I get a sudden, awful feeling that they’re hiding something from me.

“I thought Wayland was giving you the whole summer off?”

Teddy shrugs. “It’s just a few extra days.”

“We can go next Friday,” Sol says. “Forecast says it’ll rain this weekend anyway. I vote for Dryad’s Saddle--we’ll see if the damson plum is fruiting this year, and we can explore more of the cave we found behind the falls.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Teddy turns another of my maidens red, and Sol slips his black raven around the edge of the board where there’s a gap in Teddy’s shield wall.

The tension leaves my shoulders as I remember last summer, our lips and fingers stained purple from damson, lazing by the banks of the Mira and falling asleep under the stars.

“You’ll never get through,” Teddy informs me, capturing another maiden. “Admit it, I win.”

I glance at Sol, whose mouth twitches in a suppressed smile.

“Never,” I tell Teddy. “A shield maiden fights to the end.”

He laughs. “Oh, Merry,” he says. “Always so competitive. Is being joint dux of our school not enough for you?”

He leans on the word joint, because he knows it rankles. Never before in the history of Candlecott School have there been two duxes. I’m certain that I’m the rightful one, and that Caraway Boswell’s father increased his endowment because he couldn’t stand the idea of his precious son coming second.

Teddy takes advantage of my brief moment of seething resentment and turns my last maiden red. He lets out a shout of triumph. “Bow before your king!”

I curtsy theatrically. “A mighty show of strength, my lord. Just not quite mighty enough.”

Teddy looks back down at the board as Sol moves his raven into the castle. Teddy swears good-naturedly as his king crumbles into glittering black dust.

“Again?” Sol asks, sweeping the pieces back into the box to reset them.

Teddy leans back and stretches lazily. He’s effortlessly handsome in jeans and a slouchy pullover, square-jawed and hazel-eyed, his golden hair swept over his brow. Something catches in my chest when I look at him. We were seven years old when I made the rule. We swore a blood oath, the three of us, to be best friends forever. And I made Teddy and Sol swear that they would never fall in love with me. I knew that any romance would upset the balance between us--the perfect harmony of three friends. And I was seven, then. Romance was the furthest thing from my mind.

But now I’m seventeen, and Teddy is the leading man in all my nighttime fantasies.

One of the twlbwrdd maidens slips from Sol’s fingers and tumbles to the floor.

“Curses,” he says, picking up the broken pieces. “Why do they make them so fragile?”

“I can fix it,” Teddy says.

He takes the pieces from Sol and frowns at them, concentrating. I look at him threadwise to see ghostly hands manipulating the mettle of the little stone fragments, pulling them back together, drawing on energy from other things in the room--daffodils in a vase, the rising bubbles from his can of redcurrant fizz, the fingerprints in the clay statue on the mantelpiece. He whispers to himself as he works, muttering song lyrics or a nursery rhyme--there is mettle in oft-repeated words.

The stone maiden clicks together, good as new. Teddy hands it back to Sol and then turns to me, already defensive.

“What?” he says.

I shake my head. “You know what. You should be more careful.”

“I’m not the one who dropped it.”

“Was that a covenant spell?” I ask.

Teddy shrugs.

“Teddy .”

There are one hundred legal spells in Anglyon. Covenant magic. All other magic is illegal, unless it’s being done by one of the big magic corporations. But Teddy knows it’s not the legality of magic that upsets me. It’s been four years since Ma died, but it still hurts. Some days the grief is as sharp as if it were yesterday.

Sol puts the piece back in the box. “Probably enough twlbwrdd for one night,” he says brightly. “Shall we play cards?”

Sol is always trying to make peace between Teddy and me. But I’m just so angry at Teddy. At how carelessly he flaunts his magic. At how hungry he is to experiment, to learn more. When he knows how I feel. He knows what happened to Ma. There’s a reason why there are restrictions on magic. It’s dangerous. People die.

“Post and Pair?” Sol says, shuffling a deck of cards with nimble fingers. “Or Bone-Ace?”

Sol can’t see mettle the way I can, but he says he can hear it, strings vibrating at different frequencies, forming complex harmonies as they wind together. These are the secrets we whispered to each other as children, secrets that bound the three of us together. There’s no magic in Candlecott, or at least there isn’t supposed to be. Not since the witches tried to take Mwsogl Hollow and the good people of Candlecott drove them out. Nobody else in town knows what we can do--that I can see mettle, Sol can hear it, and Teddy can use it in his forge. Even though we’re not witches, people might not see us the same way if they knew. That’s why the three of us are as close as close, bound by love and secrets.

But soon we won’t be three anymore. Sol is heading overseas--he hasn’t been home to Habasah to see his sisters since primary school, and then he plans to travel for the rest of the year.

I’ll miss Sol, of course. But . . . a little part of me is glad to have some alone time with Teddy. It’s different when it’s just us. Last time it was just the two of us--when Sol was in Scouller for a school music competition--Teddy kissed me behind Goody Bhreagh’s milking shed. We didn’t talk about it afterward. Didn’t tell Sol. That was two years ago, but my stomach still lurches every time I think of it happening again.

Teddy doesn’t exactly look like he wants to kiss me right now. His jaw is still stuck out pugnaciously, ready for the fight that he knows is coming.

I pick up a newspaper from the coffee table and brandish it at him. “Did you see?” I say. “The auditors rounded up another coven of witches in Fishgate. Sent them off to a recovery center. Is that what you want?”

Teddy rolls his eyes. “I’m not a resistance witch,” he says. “And there are no auditors in Candlecott.”

“Because we don’t do magic here.”

“You do,” he says. “Tracking magic with your witch sight.”

“It’s not witch sight,” I reply hotly. “Looking threadwise isn’t magic. It’s just . . . looking.”

But I know that isn’t true. I know that my ability to see mettle isn’t normal. It’s all part of the witch’s curse that killed my mother. I glance back at the newspaper, at the photo of the witches in grainy black-and-white. They look terrifying to me, unglamoured and raw and full of rage. Only criminals and celebrities have their photos taken. Celebrities because of their natural beauty, and criminals so we can see them as they truly are. A camera can’t capture a glamour, so everyone else just has their picture drawn or painted. Even here in Candlecott, where glamours are only for extra-special occasions.

“Come on,” Sol pleads. “It’s Whitsun Eve. Don’t fight.”

There’s a moment of tension as Teddy and I engage in a battle of stubbornness. But then Teddy shrugs.

“I vote for Bone-Ace,” he says.

“Only because I always beat you at Post and Pair,” I reply.

He punches me lightly on the arm, and Sol beams.

A heavy knock at the door makes us all jump. Teddy and Sol both look to me, even though we’re in Sol’s house.

I glance at the clock. It’s eleven-thirty. A bit late for social callers.

“I’ll go, then, shall I?” I say. “Neither of you brave knights wants to step in?”

Sol’s cheeks stain pink, and Teddy shoots me a rueful grin. “You’re much more threatening than us, Merry,” he says.

He’s not wrong.

I extract myself from the couch and make my way over to the entrance, lifting the latch and stepping back as the door swings toward me.

There’s a monster on the doorstep.

A huge, leering skull stares in at us. Not human, it’s too big and too wide, with gaping eyeholes on either side of the head, amber glinting from within them in the dancing light of a guttering torch held by one of several robed figures standing behind the monster.

It’s a toad.

Nearly seven feet tall, wreathed in a gray shroud that hints at broad, bony shoulders. Scraps of ribbon and lace float from the gray fabric, along with garlands of bells and smaller bits of bone.

I’m not sure why they have come here--is it because of me?

I look at them threadwise and see the familiar strands of Da’s mettle, swirling around one of the figures. I recognize the others too--the usual Toadman crowd. And my stomach twists as I catch a glimpse of a brownish tendril weaving in among it.

I’ve seen this before--glimpses of it around Da when he returns from the Frater House. It’s not silvery bright like regular mettle. I’ve never quite been able to focus properly on it, but I know it’s got something to do with the Toadmen. I can’t ask Da, of course. He doesn’t know I can look threadwise and see mettle.

He doesn’t know that I can recognize a curse when I see it.

Behind me, I hear the scrape of a chair, and Teddy’s voice calling out.

“Do your damnedest, you old devil!”

The creature’s skull swings wildly, the diaphanous robe floating around it like ghost tatters. Teddy appears at my shoulder, his eyes bright with excitement.

The Toading happens every year on Whitsun Eve. Toadmen going from door to door, exchanging taunts and rhymes. They’ll end up at the Rose and Crown, and all the adults will have sore heads tomorrow. It’s a Candlecott tradition.

But it isn’t our tradition.

One of the robed figures bangs a staff against the ground once, twice, three times, and the monster’s huge grinning jaws snap in reply. Bells jingle, and from behind the creature, someone starts to play a fiddle.

Two robed figures step forward to flank the monster, each one masked and hooded. The first has sharp horns curving upward from behind its bulging yellow eyes. A black mouth gapes from ear to ear, studded with sharp teeth. The Howling Toad.

A deep male voice emerges from behind the mask.


We are the toads o’ Deeping Fen

Come to greet you, gentle friend.

The year is old, the night is deep

Wake him now from listless sleep

The bramble-frog of Morgendagh

He who rises with the stars.

We’ll chase away the spirits old

Let us cross your fine threshold.


The Order of Toadmen is supposed to be a secret gentlemen’s society, but it’s pretty hard to keep secrets in Candlecott. Maybe the other chapters are better at it, in bigger towns and cities. They meet once a week in the Frater House and eat biscuits and play backgammon, and then a few times a year they put on silly costumes and do rituals like this. But they don’t usually come here, because Da knows I don’t like it. He’s been a Toadman practically his whole life, and when I was younger I didn’t think much of it at all. I used to love the shiver of fear when the Toadmen would bang on our door on Whitsun Eve, back when Ma was still alive.
"An exposition-heavy start gives way to an immersive world in which Wilkinson employs beguiling imagery to craft a thought-provoking love letter to fierce and tenderhearted friendship." —Publishers Weekly

"An entertaining, well-characterized foray into a world of magical secrets." —Kirkus Reviews

"The perfect choice for readers who enjoy secret societies with dark magic and mysterious rituals paired with true friendship and unexpected romance." —School Library Journal

"An immersive, fascinating allegory that tackles, among other things, toxic masculinity and government control over women's bodies. Patient readers will be well rewarded with a nimble, romantic, and clever fantasy that pushes boundaries." —Booklist
Lili Wilkinson is the author of nineteen novels published in Australia, including Green Valentine, The Boundless Sublime, and After the Lights Go Out. She established the Inky Awards at the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria. Lili has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne and spends most of her time reading and writing books for teenagers. Her fantasy novels include A Hunger of Thorns and Deep Is the Fen. View titles by Lili Wilkinson

About

Get lost in the newest fantasy from the author of A Hunger of Thorns, on a beguiling journey behind the closed doors of a sinister secret society. Featuring a steamy enemies-to-lovers romance and a fight for the witching world that will get your heart racing.

Merry doesn’t need a happily-ever-after. Her life in the charming, idyllic town of Candlecott is fine just as it is. Simple, happy, and with absolutely no magic. Magic only ever leads to trouble.

But Merry’s best friend, Teddy, is joining the Toadmen—a secret society who specialize in backward thinking and suspiciously supernatural traditions—and Merry is determined to stop him. Even if it means teaming up with the person she hates most: her academic archnemesis, Caraway Boswell, an ice-cold snob who hides his true face under a glamour.

An ancient Toad ritual is being held in the sinister Deeping Fen, and if Merry doesn’t rescue Teddy before it’s finished, she’ll lose him forever. But the Toadmen have been keeping dangerous secrets, and so has Caraway. The farther Merry travels into Deeping Fen’s foul waters, the more she wonders if she’s truly come to save her friend . . . or if she’s walking straight into a trap.

There’s nothing the Toadmen love more than a damsel  in distress.

Excerpt

1.


Teddy has filched a bottle of wassail from his da’s cellar. He pours it out like it’s liquid gold, and we each take a thimble-sized glass.

“To us,” he says, smiling at Sol and me. “The three best friends that ever were. To unshakable loyalty and unbreakable bonds. Happy Whitsuntide.”

Sol drums the floorboards with his heels, his cheeks glowing.

I love them both so much. I want to stay in this moment forever. The three of us, together and young and happy.

I look threadwise, refocusing my eyes slightly to see the mettle floating around us, silvery strands of life-force. I’m no witch, but I can see mettle, and recognize who or where it came from, in the same way I can track a rabbit or a fox in the woods. The mettle between the three of us is connected--intricately braided together over the years of our friendship. We’re inseparable, and that’s the way I want it to stay.

They’re waiting for me. I clink my glass against each of theirs, careful to make eye contact as I do so.

The wassail is as strong as it always is, all cloves and hyssop, and we each wince and gag, swallowing it like medicine.

Teddy holds out the bottle. “More?”

Sol makes a face. “Ugh, no.”

“Merry?”

I shake my head. Even that one thimble-sized glass is enough to make me feel warm and a bit blurry around the edges. But Teddy refills his own glass and downs it in one gulp.

We are ensconced in the sitting room in the house where Sol lives with his aunt, surrounded by open chip packets and cans of fizzy drink. We’ve been playing twlbwrdd--an enchanted Ilium set where the king piece crumbles to dust when he is captured and the maidens stain red if they get captured by a liegeman. We’ve been here since midafternoon, and Teddy and Sol have filled the air with the musky scent of teenage boy. I get up and open a window, breathing in the sweetness of the night. In the distance, I hear the faint jingling of bells, and the tramping of feet.

Whitsun Eve is our night. Our families are always off celebrating, either at the Rose and Crown, or in Da’s case at the Frater House with the other Toadmen. It’s a night steeped in ancient tradition, and we have our own traditions too. Battered haddock, scampi and scallops with chips and mushy peas from Branwyn’s fish shop. Cans of redcurrant fizz and packets of cheese puffs. We play games and just generally flop around and enjoy knowing that school is over and we have the whole glorious summer stretching before us.

“We should go camping,” I say. “Up to Dryad’s Saddle or farther, to Fish Creek. We could leave the day after tomorrow.”

“Watch your king,” Sol murmurs to Teddy.

“I can’t go until after next Thursday,” Teddy says, moving his king piece behind the shield wall.

“Why not?” I slide another maiden into position.

He hesitates for just a moment before answering. “I’m needed at the forge.”

Something in his tone is off. Teddy’s a terrible liar. I look over at Sol, who is busy studying the board, and I get a sudden, awful feeling that they’re hiding something from me.

“I thought Wayland was giving you the whole summer off?”

Teddy shrugs. “It’s just a few extra days.”

“We can go next Friday,” Sol says. “Forecast says it’ll rain this weekend anyway. I vote for Dryad’s Saddle--we’ll see if the damson plum is fruiting this year, and we can explore more of the cave we found behind the falls.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Teddy turns another of my maidens red, and Sol slips his black raven around the edge of the board where there’s a gap in Teddy’s shield wall.

The tension leaves my shoulders as I remember last summer, our lips and fingers stained purple from damson, lazing by the banks of the Mira and falling asleep under the stars.

“You’ll never get through,” Teddy informs me, capturing another maiden. “Admit it, I win.”

I glance at Sol, whose mouth twitches in a suppressed smile.

“Never,” I tell Teddy. “A shield maiden fights to the end.”

He laughs. “Oh, Merry,” he says. “Always so competitive. Is being joint dux of our school not enough for you?”

He leans on the word joint, because he knows it rankles. Never before in the history of Candlecott School have there been two duxes. I’m certain that I’m the rightful one, and that Caraway Boswell’s father increased his endowment because he couldn’t stand the idea of his precious son coming second.

Teddy takes advantage of my brief moment of seething resentment and turns my last maiden red. He lets out a shout of triumph. “Bow before your king!”

I curtsy theatrically. “A mighty show of strength, my lord. Just not quite mighty enough.”

Teddy looks back down at the board as Sol moves his raven into the castle. Teddy swears good-naturedly as his king crumbles into glittering black dust.

“Again?” Sol asks, sweeping the pieces back into the box to reset them.

Teddy leans back and stretches lazily. He’s effortlessly handsome in jeans and a slouchy pullover, square-jawed and hazel-eyed, his golden hair swept over his brow. Something catches in my chest when I look at him. We were seven years old when I made the rule. We swore a blood oath, the three of us, to be best friends forever. And I made Teddy and Sol swear that they would never fall in love with me. I knew that any romance would upset the balance between us--the perfect harmony of three friends. And I was seven, then. Romance was the furthest thing from my mind.

But now I’m seventeen, and Teddy is the leading man in all my nighttime fantasies.

One of the twlbwrdd maidens slips from Sol’s fingers and tumbles to the floor.

“Curses,” he says, picking up the broken pieces. “Why do they make them so fragile?”

“I can fix it,” Teddy says.

He takes the pieces from Sol and frowns at them, concentrating. I look at him threadwise to see ghostly hands manipulating the mettle of the little stone fragments, pulling them back together, drawing on energy from other things in the room--daffodils in a vase, the rising bubbles from his can of redcurrant fizz, the fingerprints in the clay statue on the mantelpiece. He whispers to himself as he works, muttering song lyrics or a nursery rhyme--there is mettle in oft-repeated words.

The stone maiden clicks together, good as new. Teddy hands it back to Sol and then turns to me, already defensive.

“What?” he says.

I shake my head. “You know what. You should be more careful.”

“I’m not the one who dropped it.”

“Was that a covenant spell?” I ask.

Teddy shrugs.

“Teddy .”

There are one hundred legal spells in Anglyon. Covenant magic. All other magic is illegal, unless it’s being done by one of the big magic corporations. But Teddy knows it’s not the legality of magic that upsets me. It’s been four years since Ma died, but it still hurts. Some days the grief is as sharp as if it were yesterday.

Sol puts the piece back in the box. “Probably enough twlbwrdd for one night,” he says brightly. “Shall we play cards?”

Sol is always trying to make peace between Teddy and me. But I’m just so angry at Teddy. At how carelessly he flaunts his magic. At how hungry he is to experiment, to learn more. When he knows how I feel. He knows what happened to Ma. There’s a reason why there are restrictions on magic. It’s dangerous. People die.

“Post and Pair?” Sol says, shuffling a deck of cards with nimble fingers. “Or Bone-Ace?”

Sol can’t see mettle the way I can, but he says he can hear it, strings vibrating at different frequencies, forming complex harmonies as they wind together. These are the secrets we whispered to each other as children, secrets that bound the three of us together. There’s no magic in Candlecott, or at least there isn’t supposed to be. Not since the witches tried to take Mwsogl Hollow and the good people of Candlecott drove them out. Nobody else in town knows what we can do--that I can see mettle, Sol can hear it, and Teddy can use it in his forge. Even though we’re not witches, people might not see us the same way if they knew. That’s why the three of us are as close as close, bound by love and secrets.

But soon we won’t be three anymore. Sol is heading overseas--he hasn’t been home to Habasah to see his sisters since primary school, and then he plans to travel for the rest of the year.

I’ll miss Sol, of course. But . . . a little part of me is glad to have some alone time with Teddy. It’s different when it’s just us. Last time it was just the two of us--when Sol was in Scouller for a school music competition--Teddy kissed me behind Goody Bhreagh’s milking shed. We didn’t talk about it afterward. Didn’t tell Sol. That was two years ago, but my stomach still lurches every time I think of it happening again.

Teddy doesn’t exactly look like he wants to kiss me right now. His jaw is still stuck out pugnaciously, ready for the fight that he knows is coming.

I pick up a newspaper from the coffee table and brandish it at him. “Did you see?” I say. “The auditors rounded up another coven of witches in Fishgate. Sent them off to a recovery center. Is that what you want?”

Teddy rolls his eyes. “I’m not a resistance witch,” he says. “And there are no auditors in Candlecott.”

“Because we don’t do magic here.”

“You do,” he says. “Tracking magic with your witch sight.”

“It’s not witch sight,” I reply hotly. “Looking threadwise isn’t magic. It’s just . . . looking.”

But I know that isn’t true. I know that my ability to see mettle isn’t normal. It’s all part of the witch’s curse that killed my mother. I glance back at the newspaper, at the photo of the witches in grainy black-and-white. They look terrifying to me, unglamoured and raw and full of rage. Only criminals and celebrities have their photos taken. Celebrities because of their natural beauty, and criminals so we can see them as they truly are. A camera can’t capture a glamour, so everyone else just has their picture drawn or painted. Even here in Candlecott, where glamours are only for extra-special occasions.

“Come on,” Sol pleads. “It’s Whitsun Eve. Don’t fight.”

There’s a moment of tension as Teddy and I engage in a battle of stubbornness. But then Teddy shrugs.

“I vote for Bone-Ace,” he says.

“Only because I always beat you at Post and Pair,” I reply.

He punches me lightly on the arm, and Sol beams.

A heavy knock at the door makes us all jump. Teddy and Sol both look to me, even though we’re in Sol’s house.

I glance at the clock. It’s eleven-thirty. A bit late for social callers.

“I’ll go, then, shall I?” I say. “Neither of you brave knights wants to step in?”

Sol’s cheeks stain pink, and Teddy shoots me a rueful grin. “You’re much more threatening than us, Merry,” he says.

He’s not wrong.

I extract myself from the couch and make my way over to the entrance, lifting the latch and stepping back as the door swings toward me.

There’s a monster on the doorstep.

A huge, leering skull stares in at us. Not human, it’s too big and too wide, with gaping eyeholes on either side of the head, amber glinting from within them in the dancing light of a guttering torch held by one of several robed figures standing behind the monster.

It’s a toad.

Nearly seven feet tall, wreathed in a gray shroud that hints at broad, bony shoulders. Scraps of ribbon and lace float from the gray fabric, along with garlands of bells and smaller bits of bone.

I’m not sure why they have come here--is it because of me?

I look at them threadwise and see the familiar strands of Da’s mettle, swirling around one of the figures. I recognize the others too--the usual Toadman crowd. And my stomach twists as I catch a glimpse of a brownish tendril weaving in among it.

I’ve seen this before--glimpses of it around Da when he returns from the Frater House. It’s not silvery bright like regular mettle. I’ve never quite been able to focus properly on it, but I know it’s got something to do with the Toadmen. I can’t ask Da, of course. He doesn’t know I can look threadwise and see mettle.

He doesn’t know that I can recognize a curse when I see it.

Behind me, I hear the scrape of a chair, and Teddy’s voice calling out.

“Do your damnedest, you old devil!”

The creature’s skull swings wildly, the diaphanous robe floating around it like ghost tatters. Teddy appears at my shoulder, his eyes bright with excitement.

The Toading happens every year on Whitsun Eve. Toadmen going from door to door, exchanging taunts and rhymes. They’ll end up at the Rose and Crown, and all the adults will have sore heads tomorrow. It’s a Candlecott tradition.

But it isn’t our tradition.

One of the robed figures bangs a staff against the ground once, twice, three times, and the monster’s huge grinning jaws snap in reply. Bells jingle, and from behind the creature, someone starts to play a fiddle.

Two robed figures step forward to flank the monster, each one masked and hooded. The first has sharp horns curving upward from behind its bulging yellow eyes. A black mouth gapes from ear to ear, studded with sharp teeth. The Howling Toad.

A deep male voice emerges from behind the mask.


We are the toads o’ Deeping Fen

Come to greet you, gentle friend.

The year is old, the night is deep

Wake him now from listless sleep

The bramble-frog of Morgendagh

He who rises with the stars.

We’ll chase away the spirits old

Let us cross your fine threshold.


The Order of Toadmen is supposed to be a secret gentlemen’s society, but it’s pretty hard to keep secrets in Candlecott. Maybe the other chapters are better at it, in bigger towns and cities. They meet once a week in the Frater House and eat biscuits and play backgammon, and then a few times a year they put on silly costumes and do rituals like this. But they don’t usually come here, because Da knows I don’t like it. He’s been a Toadman practically his whole life, and when I was younger I didn’t think much of it at all. I used to love the shiver of fear when the Toadmen would bang on our door on Whitsun Eve, back when Ma was still alive.

Reviews

"An exposition-heavy start gives way to an immersive world in which Wilkinson employs beguiling imagery to craft a thought-provoking love letter to fierce and tenderhearted friendship." —Publishers Weekly

"An entertaining, well-characterized foray into a world of magical secrets." —Kirkus Reviews

"The perfect choice for readers who enjoy secret societies with dark magic and mysterious rituals paired with true friendship and unexpected romance." —School Library Journal

"An immersive, fascinating allegory that tackles, among other things, toxic masculinity and government control over women's bodies. Patient readers will be well rewarded with a nimble, romantic, and clever fantasy that pushes boundaries." —Booklist

Author

Lili Wilkinson is the author of nineteen novels published in Australia, including Green Valentine, The Boundless Sublime, and After the Lights Go Out. She established the Inky Awards at the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria. Lili has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne and spends most of her time reading and writing books for teenagers. Her fantasy novels include A Hunger of Thorns and Deep Is the Fen. View titles by Lili Wilkinson