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The Witch, the Sword, and the Cursed Knights
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Perfect for fans of The School for Good and Evil and A Tale of Magic…, this Barnes & Noble Children’s Book Award finalist and Amazon Best Book of the Month is a charming fantasy debut that puts a new spin on the legend of Camelot — now in paperback!Twelve-year-old Ellie can’t help that she’s a witch, the most hated member of society. Determined to prove her worth and eschew her heritage, Ellie applies to the Fairy Godmother Academy—her golden ticket to societal acceptance. But Ellie’s dreams are squashed when she receives the dreaded draft letter to serve as a knight of King Arthur’s legendary Round Table. She can get out of the draft—but only if she saves a lost cause.
Enter Caedmon, a boy from Wisconsin struggling with the death of his best friend. He first dismisses the draft as ridiculous; magic can’t possibly exist. But when Merlin’s ancient magic foretells his family’s death if he doesn’t follow through, he travels to the knights’ castle, where he learns of a wicked curse leeching the knights of their power.
To break the curse, Ellie and Caedmon must pass a series of deathly trials and reforge the lost, shattered sword of Excalibur. And unless Ellie accepts her witch magic and Caedmon rises to become the knight he’s meant to be, they will both fail—and the world will fall to the same darkness that brought King Arthur and Camelot to ruin.
ROSES AND NEEDLES FINISHING SCHOOL, TRAGEVELIA REALM, 715 YATRDOC (YEARS AFTER THE REGRETFUL DEMISE OF CAMELOT)
A COPPER TANG STUNG ELLIE’S NOSE.
Fairies above, was that… blood? Bianca, Ellie’s fluffy white cat with mismatched blue and black eyes, twitched her tail once.
Three tail twitches. Spiders skittered down Ellie’s spine. Bianca smelled blood, too.
Ellie was unharmed, her bedchamber unmussed, her overdue library books still cluttering her desk, fire still crackling in the hearth. Nothing was out of place. Yet the smell remained, its source invisible. Haunting.
Ellie peeked up her chimney, where gremlins were prone to hiding after snatching secrets and tucking them into their pockets.
Nothing. No sign of blood.
Ellie shivered, glancing at the mysterious letter on her bedside table—and the reason she was still awake at thirty minutes to midnight despite her Fairy Godmother Academy entrance exam in the morning.
Sir—she double-checked the name on her letter—Sir Masten had to explain himself soon. Ellie had never heard of him. Yet the letter was there, all the same, addressed to her, down to the last detail:
Dear Ellie Bettlebump, neglected stepsister to the gracious, beautiful to-be Princess Bella, frizzy hair in both rain and sun, excruciatingly average:
The last word snagged Ellie’s focus. Average. Slumping into her cushions, she looked down at her body, still adorned in her drab school skirt and cardigan, her wild mess of dark curls covering half of it.
Mother would be most displeased to hear she was, in fact, excruciatingly average.
Ellie shook her head and continued reading.
At midnight on the eleventh of October, you will receive vital information. You have been dutifully informed by Sir Masten, Knight of the Twenty-Five and a Half Realms.
Ellie’s eyes darted to the ticking grandfather clock for approximately the 836th time that day. 11:36 PM.
Would some stranger burst into her little bedroom? She’d tidied just in case. Her Castle Tending professor would be so proud. She’d fluffed her cushions, swept the floors, and crammed her dirty clothes into the wardrobe she’d accidentally enchanted to screech when it didn’t like Ellie’s outfits, which was most days.
In a school with over a thousand rooms, Ellie’s bedchamber was the only space she loved. She had to show it off. With its sloping ceiling and tapestry of unicorns adorning the stone wall, it was a happy place, with just Ellie and her thoughts.
Her toads loved her.
Her cat loved her.
No one could hurt her here.
Tilly burped in her face for the sixth time that night. Ellie scrunched her nose and nudged the spotted toad off her quilt, toward Tilly’s toad friends near the flickering fire.
Ellie had no real human friends to speak of, but toads? Oh, she had toads. Despite attending Roses and Needles Finishing School since she was five for her ever-so-important “socialization,” Ellie had yet to meet anyone who could stomach her rather prominent toad collection, much to her mother’s dismay.
It wasn’t Ellie’s fault. She couldn’t help that she was, you know, a witch.1 And as we all know, toads adore witches. Find their toes quite sugary.
That’s not to say Ellie liked the toads. How could she when they were solely responsible for her eternal banishment from any high-society event forevermore? Including her own stepsister’s wedding. Mother’s words still burned in her ears: How am I meant to trust you at such a grand occasion? You’re sure to make a fool of yourself. Why, just this Solstice past, Headmistress Olga informed me one of your toads hopped onto Her Majesty’s wig at teatime!
A minor mishap.
Ellie’s skin prickled, the way it always did when she focused too deeply on Mother, for somewhere in her heart, she knew: Her banishment wasn’t about the toads.
No matter how many times Ellie promised never to accept her witch magic, as long as it remained, Mother would never approve.
She waited for a glimmer of grief, a speckle of tears. Nothing came. She’d already cried. Tears wouldn’t help her now.
Bianca twitched her tail three times again—but there was still no blood in sight.
With nothing else to do, Ellie paced. If only she had her own fairy godmother, like Bella and Bella’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Cinderella before her. She could help Ellie attend the wedding.
Ellie scratched her palms. This night needed to end.
She hopped to her window and peered at the school entrance, bordered by the renowned Glitter Lakes. How would Sir Masten find her? Could he even get past the boarding-school guards?
Unlikely. The guards were enchanted stone lions with a ferocious appetite for bones. It took all Headmistress Olga’s efforts to keep them from eating students, let alone intruders.
Would a new letter fly through her window? Ellie had kept it wide open.
As the International Fairy Postal Service wasn’t required to abide by societal rules, it sent letters zooming through the sky with reckless abandon. Mother revealed it caused quite a stir at court.
11:44 and thirty seconds.
This was impossible. How was Ellie supposed to wait another—she counted on her fingers—fifteen minutes and thirty seconds?
Groaning, she lifted her gaze to the star-stippled ceiling enchanted to catch her daydreams. A great city with steel buildings that spiked through clouds glimmered across the stars and stones. She didn’t know the name. Mew Fork? New Cork? She’d only heard it once. It was forbidden, people said. They wouldn’t understand us, others said. The twenty-four and a half magical realms must keep to themselves, hidden across the earth behind impenetrable walls of magic. It was the first rule Ellie remembered ever learning, enrapt as she was with the notion of adventure.
Once, there were no walls, no separation, millions united under the Pendragon Empire. That was Before. Before the Fall of Camelot. Before the Deep. Before three quarters of the world lost all memory of magic, sending those who knew the truth into hiding.
Needless to say, the response to Ellie’s desire for adventure had been a resounding no. But maybe the councillors and queens and Mother and everyone else she’d ever met were wrong, and nonmagical people would be more accepting of her witchiness than her own people were.
She stretched her fingers as if to catch the image of the unnamed city in her palm, and it vanished into wispy smoke.
No matter; as soon as the Fairy Godmother Academy accepted her, she need never worry about her witchiness again.
Everyone revered fairies—they weren’t the ones responsible for the Fall of Camelot.
This was the second rule Ellie remembered learning: Never reveal she was a witch, for witches’ contaminated, malevolent magic brought down the greatest empire the world had ever known.
Far better to be a fairy, and at the academy, she would study under the Fairy Godmother herself. Surely that would grant her an invitation to Bella’s wedding. When Mother saw Ellie in her brand-new tulip gown, she’d exclaim, “Oh, how lovely you look! How fortunate I am to call you my daughter!” Stepsister Bella would coo over Ellie’s blossoming fairy magic. For once, no one would mind the toads.…
The letter burned out of the corner of her eye.
Unless this Sir Masten got in the way.
She paced. And paced. And paced. Until at last, as the clock struck midnight and Ellie nearly burst from her skin, Bianca hissed at Sir Masten’s letter—which now dripped scarlet blood.
Ellie’s heart pattered so quickly, she could hear it through her thick gray sweater. As the ringing clock reverberated in her bones, Ellie snatched Sir Masten’s letter off her dresser.
Where blank space had been before, an invitation was now scrawled in blood.
Dear Ellie Bettlebump, average:
Well, at least they’d left out excruciatingly.
You have been drafted to serve as a Knight of the Round Table, Protector of the Twenty-Five and a Half Realms.
Ellie’s heart no longer worked. She read the letter again and again, yet no matter how many times her eyes scanned the horrible contents, they remained unchanged.
She’d been drafted. And according to the letter, she had only until October 31 before the knights stole her away.
She’d always known there was a chance, but with only twenty-five new twelve-year-old recruits from the whole world every year, the chances were slimmer than slim. They were almost nonexistent.
Ellie hugged her pillow, willing her fingers to stop shaking. This couldn’t be happening. She had her Fairy Godmother Academy exam in the morning. Bianca stalked into her lap, tail still twitching back and forth, pausing every three beats.
Yes, she knew there was blood. It was all over her fingers now.
She squeezed her eyes shut, her future mysterious and foggy.
No one knew exactly what the Knights of the Round Table did, other than protect the realms. Shrouded in secrecy since the Fall of Camelot, they supposedly guarded King Arthur’s long-gone broken sword. But how they did that? And where? And why?
No one knew.
Only that it was a requirement—sealed by the deceased Merlin’s powerful, ancient magic—that there must always be twenty-five new recruits, lest the world tumble into darkness once more.
And that once drafted, people served for life.
This was a death sentence for everything Ellie had ever known. Everything she’d hoped for.
She balled her fingers into fists.
Ellie would not go quietly.
She would take her exam in the morning. She would pass. She’d be granted a special fairy godmother bedroom in the flowering towers of Treelala Castle. No knight could reach her there.
She still had time.
Ellie counted on her fingers. Twenty days to be exact.
“Forsooth, thou must depart my weary sight; be gone into the lost Forgetting Place,” she whispered, clutching her fairy scepter.
She couldn’t remember when she’d first heard the fairy spell, nor the moment she’d discovered she was part fairy. She hadn’t inherited the wings, pointy ears, or penchant for eating daisies. She certainly wasn’t granted a scepter at birth by the great Fairy Godmother herself, as is customary. But fairy magic listened to her, and this spell had lingered in her mind as long as she’d known life, as true to her as her name. She didn’t know where that place of lost things was, only that it had accumulated its share of Ellie’s possessions and horrible memories, bottled so she didn’t have to remember.
Best for some memories to remain lost, and things to remain forgotten.
The letter whisked into the night, but not before droplets of blood sprinkled her duvet. Ellie’s heart seized as she took in the form they left behind—a sleeping dragon, for King Arthur’s fallen Pendragon Empire.
She hurled the duvet to the ground, though later, as she attempted to sleep, shivering beneath her thin sheet, she couldn’t help but think: Some fates, not even she could escape.
1 But please don’t tell; she’s highly sensitive about it.
NEW WORLD REALM, BOULDER FALLS, WISCONSIN, 2019 AD1
CAEDMON LIKED TO WANDER.
Those looking for wanderers never found them. It had to happen by accident. Caedmon didn’t mind meeting people that way. It was his parents he wanted to avoid. Fortunately, parents only ever found footsteps, which were easily concealed.
This particular wander brought Caedmon to a great tree with drooping leaves cascading into a bubbling brook, near the edge of the forest of Boulder Falls, Wisconsin.
He didn’t know how many minutes passed as he dropped sticks and stones into the water, watching them float and sink, float and sink, again and again.
Maybe his friend Jimmy would like to join.
Maybe his ghost would come spend time with him.
Or, more likely, tease him for moping.
Caedmon stretched out in the grass, the sweet smell tickling his nose. Ghosts weren’t real. He knew that. And neither was Jimmy.
Mom said she understood. Dad said Caedmon would get through it, though as far as Caedmon could tell, there was nothing to get through. There wasn’t one side and another, like the tunnels he and Jimmy used to race through, listening to distant trains screech.
There was only empty space where his best friend should be. Only the sound of plunking stones in water. Plunk, plunk, plunk, buzz and chirp and a whistling wind.
Caedmon preferred it to people speaking.
Mr. Barnsworth had warned Caedmon he couldn’t miss another class, and that next time, he really would tell the principal. Words like “expelled” and “failed” had floated through his ears.
Caedmon couldn’t bring himself to care.
He ran a hand through his floppy brown hair, scrunching his pale forehead. School had always been his thing, even to the point of letting Jimmy copy his homework.
But what was the point if your best friend could die, your life could change, and there was nothing you could do to stop it? No amount of learning could help him. Nothing helped him.
He flipped to his back and lay utterly still, despite the faint tickling of a worm inching across his ankle and the warmth against his cheeks warning him to wear sunscreen. Maybe, if he were still enough, he could stop time. Stop his mind from replaying those final days in the hospital.
No one knew how Jimmy got so sick, so quickly. No one knew why he died. Only that one day he was fine, and the next his heart stopped working.
And he was gone.
Sometimes he thought he saw Jimmy out of the corner of his eye. Laughing, as usual, his hair sticking up in all directions. Jimmy would’ve hated the funeral. If ghosts were real, Jimmy would’ve pulled pranks on everyone there. When Jimmy’s little sister slipped on a banana peel at the wake, Caedmon could’ve sworn he’d heard his friend cackle.
But it’d only been Jimmy’s mom screaming, afraid a second child of hers was about to die. Another sound Caedmon would have to banish from his embarrassing, terrified thoughts at night.
A faint rustling stirred the grass.
Probably a squirrel.
Though that didn’t explain the hairs rising on Caedmon’s neck.
The rustling grew louder.
Caedmon peeked through nearly closed lids. If his mom or dad had found him, would he run? Trudge home and sneak out again later? Groaning, Caedmon propped himself up on his elbows. “Sorry, Mom.”
No one was there.
Even the brook seemed to have stopped bubbling. The cicadas didn’t stir; the grass stood still.
Something crinkled, like pieces of paper, as a red droplet appeared on Caedmon’s foot.
Red like… blood.
Caedmon lurched upright, though his ankle felt healthy enough, free from scrapes or bites. Something wet and warm dripped onto Caedmon’s neck—there, a letter, tied to a branch.
That explained the crinkling.
The paper was blank but for the dripping of blood from the corner. Like it hurt to reveal what it needed to say. The weeping willow creaked, listening. Waiting for him.
In majestic, looping handwriting, words began to scratch the page. Every fiber in Caedmon’s body wanted to bolt, but his feet refused to move.
Because his own name stared back at him.
Dear Caedmon Tuggle, depressed friend of deceased Jimmy Bensen, despicable grades for someone of above-average intelligence, crush on Mellie Melowski, modest upper-body strength, still believes in Santa Claus:
Caedmon’s cheeks flamed. Okay, it’s not that he believed in Santa Claus; he just thought it was stupid to rule it out completely just because nobody had met him. There was a difference. And he’d never told anyone about Mellie, not even Jimmy. He shook his head and continued reading, only to be reprimanded for ignoring a previous letter telling him he’d receive this letter. Come to think of it, his mom had mentioned something a couple of days ago—but he cared so little about anything these days, he’d promptly forgotten.
You have been drafted to serve as a Knight of the Round Table, Protector of the Twenty-Five and a Half Realms. Your escort will arrive at 9:00 PM sharp on the thirty-first of October, 2019 AD / 715 YATRDOC. Please bring the following required materials:
• Your finest fighting sword
• Your best example of craftsmanship in any art form
• One Familiar (Two can be requested upon application. Three is poor luck and worse manners. Must not exceed 1,000 pounds each. As of 710 YATRDOC, portapoofs are strictly prohibited.)
• Sir Artemis the Great’s Lessons Learned Throughout the Realms by Sir Unken Fendlefiemmer (Available in most local bookstores, though an order form for the Fairy Godmother Shop of All Things has been included should you not find it or live in the nonmagical realm.)
• Three common poisons of your choosing (Rogle root, pixie’s breath, and gargoyle toe are all appropriate options.)
Poisons? Knights? And what on earth was a rogle root? Was pixie’s breath a flower? Caedmon turned the paper over, his mind catching up to his fear. That couldn’t actually be blood. There had to be a trick to it. But no matter how many ways he turned the paper and squinted at it, he couldn’t find the trick.
Unless… ghosts really were real and Jimmy was playing one of his darker pranks. Goose bumps rippled up his arms.
He dropped the letter in the dirt and ambled toward home. Pranks or no, Jimmy was dead.
And it was unfair to remind Caedmon that all Jimmy could ever do again was play pranks from the grave.
1 Which happens to be the same as 715 YATRDOC, for those of you who have not taken my Lessons for Children on the Importance of Timelines in the Twenty-Five and a Half Realms; How Realm Thirteen, the Dragon Realm, Severely Miscalculated the Length of Its Existence, Sending All Realms into Chaos for a Hundred Years; and How We Shall Not Forgive Them No Matter the Price, Particularly Stanley.
CAEDMON NEARLY FORGOT IT WAS HALLOWEEN UNTIL trick-or-treaters showed up on his doorstep wearing costumes. Of course, it wasn’t actually Halloween; Boulder Falls’s superstition banned trick-or-treaters from asking for candy on Halloween because the last time they did, the mayor fell into a beehive. So instead, kids dressed up a week earlier. Tonight, a goblin, a princess, and a ghost held out plastic orange jack-o’-lanterns.
The smallest—the ghost—grabbed Caedmon’s hand, her fingers sticky. “Do you have lollipops?”
For a moment, Caedmon only stared at her. He hadn’t thought of Jimmy’s ghost note in days, banishing it to the back of his mind along with everything else, so all that existed in his head was a pleasant buzz. A complete absence of anything.
But the girl’s oversize white sheet reminded him of Jimmy’s ghost sending him letters. He didn’t like being reminded. Caedmon glowered. “No.” He slammed the door and stalked back inside, ignoring the little girl’s wails of protest.
From the living room, the TV flicked off. “Were those trick-or-treaters?” his dad called. Though Robert Tuggle looked like a ferocious bear with his wild beard and broad frame, he was one of the gentlest people Caedmon knew and probably wouldn’t approve of his behavior.
“No,” Caedmon lied. Lying felt good. It was the only thing that did these days.
“I made apple pie, bud,” his dad continued. “Your mom and I were about to have some. Come join us?”
“No,” Caedmon repeated, jumping the stairs two at a time so he could escape to his room.
Once inside, he leaned against the door. His blue walls were the same. The orange bedspread was the same. The comic books on the floor, the abandoned Xbox in the corner he hadn’t wanted to play since Jimmy died.
All the same.
And all… empty.
Caedmon didn’t even reach the bed before collapsing in exhaustion, sprawled on the floor. He squeezed his eyes shut as hot tears prickled. Crying was stupid. It wouldn’t change anything.
“That’s an odd place to spend your time,” murmured a strange voice.
Caedmon’s eyes flared open. He screamed.
Upside down from his spot on the floor, a woman with a sparkling blue dress, tiara, and violet spiky hair swung her legs from his windowsill. She pouted. “Wait, why are you screaming? I put my face on and everything!”
“You… you put your face…?” Caedmon shook his head. “Who are you and why are you in my room?”
Rather than answer him, she hopped off his windowsill and started picking random items off his bookshelf and flicking through them. “Peculiar taste in books, too.” She pulled out his school textbook on ancient civilizations and squinted at it, turning it upside down, her strange silver eyes roving over the pages. Eyes that didn’t look… human. “What’s this Rome place?”
“That… that’s for school!” Caedmon protested, flipping upright and inching toward the door. “Rome is… it’s a city in Italy and… the ancient Romans were really powerful.…”
He grabbed the doorknob. It didn’t budge.
The woman threw her head back and laughed, the sound too large for someone so small. “Oh, I forget how delightful it is to talk to New World recruits. You have nothing inside your skull, little knight, and it pleases me.”
Caedmon took some offense to that. If nothing else, he was good at school. Maybe not these days, but still.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Caedmon tried again.
“Roxie, Roxie, I go by sweet Roxie,” she chanted. “And trust me: This is the worst part of the job. But you know, it pays the bills, and I like my rum collection.” She pulled out a bottle of rum from her poofy dress. “Rum?”
“I’m twelve,” Caedmon stammered.
Roxie shrugged. “Legal age is fourteen in the Dragon Realm. Though that might be because they’re terrible mathematicians and miscalculated… well, everything.”
“The Dragon Realm? What?”
Roxie grinned, revealing pointed, glittery teeth. Caedmon flattened himself against the door. He was embarrassed to admit it, but for the first time in weeks, he wished for his parents.
All they’d done since Jimmy’s death was rush upstairs to coddle him, and now was the time they chose to leave him alone?
“It’s a realm far from here.”
“Like… a parallel universe or something?”
Roxie cackled. “Oh, you delightful fool. Not that far. All this universe, all this world. Realm is the ancient word for kingdom, and our kingdoms are ancient, honored things. The magical realms are simply unknown.” Her eyes sparkled. “Secret.”
“That’s impossible,” Caedmon whispered.
“Nothing is impossible with a healthy dose of magic, dear one. There are twenty-four and a half magical realms hidden around the world, with walls of fire and ice and brittle bone to keep out sneaky, pesky, prying things.”
Caedmon cleared his throat. “Sure. Okay.” He had a feeling if there were walls of bones around the world keeping them from magical kingdoms, someone would have put it on social media by now.
Her eyes narrowed, as if reading his mind. “You would never see the walls from this side. All you would see is barren nothingness that stretches into the rest of time. It fills human hearts with such sadness, such unending grief, their souls unable to understand why they cannot touch and taste our magic, that they ignore. They do not see. So, what is empty to your eyes remains magical to ours.”
Caedmon blinked. Her description stirred something in him. Some long-forgotten emotion. Like… want. Curiosity. He buried it back down. “I don’t believe you.”
Praise for The Witch, The Sword, and the Cursed Knights:
A Barnes & Noble Children's & YA Book Award Finalist
An Amazon Best Book of the Month
A 2022 Bank Street Best Book
*"A fantasy in the highest tradition. Ellie and Caedmon are perfectly drawn as insecure but determined protagonists, and the story’s themes of courage, friendship, hope, and self-acceptance freshly resonate. An engaging and intelligent fantasy: up there with the best of them."—Kirkus, starred review
- “From page one, Rogers’ debut delivers. …it’s the vibrant bond between the two leads that gives the story its abounding heart. Middle-grade fantasy at its most epic.”—Booklist, starred review
"Rogers’s creativity in constructing the multiple-realm setting is outstanding, including minute details that keep its audience riveted. A kinetic and novel fairy tale with themes of friendship and perseverance that will engage fans of Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon."
—School Library Journal, starred review
- "The Witch, the Sword, and the Cursed Knights is a joy to read – a delightful, heartfelt adventure with characters you’ll root for. It has all the intrigue of the original source material, but it’s also packed full of imagination. Perfect for any child who’s ever wished for magic!"—Carli Sorosiak, author of I, Cosmo
- “This is a delightful book that cleverly combines reimagined elements of Arthurian legend and fairytales in a fresh adventure full of magic lessons, dangerous quests, lost lands, and true friends – with a sugar-dusting of humor sprinkled throughout. I enjoyed every page!”—Jennifer Adam, author of The Last Windwitch
- "Rogers deftly weaves Arthurian legend around universal concerns of the target audience, and the ending is both satisfying and sequel-ready."—Publishers Weekly
- "Debut author Rogers combines elements from beloved fairy tales and legends, blending recognizable patterns with humor and excitement to produce something charming and new."—Horn Book
- On Sale
- Feb 28, 2023
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers