This excerpt comes from the first novel in The Fairytale Keeper series. The night before, Adelaide’s father Ansel was forced to bury his wife after her funeral had gone terribly wrong. He hasn’t returned. Though Adelaide’s determined to find him, she’ll need a little help. If you’d like to read more, The Fairytale Keeper, and its sequel, The Countess’ Captive are available on Amazon.
12 March 1247
With Galadriel gone, and no other significant distractions available, my mind wanders back to worry.
I wonder how long Father has been gone. The bells had struck Compline as our carriage stopped at the house last night. For the funeral, we had left after midday—sometime between None and Vespers. The Vesper bells chimed as we made our way back to the city, and the sun set just as we reached the safety of its walls.
I have never dug a grave before and haven’t the slightest idea how long it takes. The ground is still hard from winter, so it was certainly no light task. The funeral itself took half the daylight hours, so a burial should not have taken all night. Should it?
The sun is up, so it is far past Prime. I don’t know when Father should have come home exactly—sometime between Nocturn and Matins perhaps. Either way, he should have returned by now. Fear quickens my heart.
He could be at the market, I try to convince myself, though I envision packs of wolves and bands of thieves again, stalking Father through the mist. I see him shivering with blue lips in his drenched clothing, freezing and alone in the cold of night. I curse myself for letting him go. I should have followed him. Why didn’t I follow him?
Surely time enough has passed since we returned to our beds, and Galadriel is either asleep or close to it.
I dip the ends of a rag into the water basin and quickly scrub my face. I sloppily braid my tangled hair, toss my surcote on over my chainse, grab my cloak and… DONG! I jump. The bells toll. I hang my head out of the window and count each ring. They are the Sext bells. My heart sinks. Father has been gone for three-quarters of a day.
On tip toe, I skirt into the solar and over to the ladder that leads to my bedchamber. Surely Galadriel sleeps, for not a sound comes from above. I sneak down to Father’s shop. I should at least leave a note, so in case she does wake, she doesn’t come looking for me. I whirl about, looking for the wax tablet Mama used to track orders. I find it, shake my head at the long list of orders we’ve yet to complete, and scrawl a quick note to Galadriel in the wax below the list of orders. I hope she can read.
Perhaps, Erik, Ivo’s Father, knows where my father is. If not, two sets of eyes are better than one, so I decide to ask Ivo and perhaps his younger brother Levi to aid me in my search. But would they be home or outside the gates in the fields?
I whip my cloak over my shoulders, draw up the hood, and slip out the door. I hasten down Filzengraben, hoping to go unrecognized. It is less crowded than I expect. I suppose most of the city’s people are laboring in the fields, selling their wares at the market, or making purchases there.
Foller Strasse leads me past a number of row houses. It’s empty as usual for this time of day, and I fear Ivo’s house will be empty, too. Biting my lip, I knock on his door. No one answers.
I hasten past the houses to the stone wall surrounding the DeBelle Manor and climb its thick vines. With the exception of a few villeins, the DeBelle Manor field is vacant. I drop from the wall and utter a curse. Erik is less likely to let me borrow Ivo if heavy work must be done.
The villeins spread manure and plough the fields this time each year, so it is most likely they’re far outside the city wall. I take a small alley toward Severin’s Strasse. Its narrowness makes the row house seem so much taller than they are. Being so closed in makes me uneasy, but the road is short, and I am onto the wide road of Severin’s Strasse soon enough.
I pass St. Catherine’s church and then St. Severin’s. The gate splays open, and the daytime guard—who flirts with a pretty young maid who looks quite bored with him—doesn’t give me a second look. Once beyond the gate, I lift my cloak and skirts and run between the fields in search of Ivo or anyone who might know where he is.
Not a half-furlong into my journey, my toe catches, and I surge forward, falling. The ground comes up to meet me. My left arm breaks the fall, catching on a sharp rock. The pain is searing as it tears through linen and into flesh.
A child’s laughter echoes from nearby. His mother slaps the back of his head, and the boy is back to work, but not before a dozen serfs and villeins turn their attention to me. My cheeks flush hotly in embarrassment, but their pause gives me time to ask of Ivo’s whereabouts. They point south.
I watch the blood drip down my hand, surprised that the wound neither throbs nor stings. Can I thank worry or the numbness of grief for this reprieve? I wonder. Then I shake the useless thought from my head and keep running.
I’ve passed another furlong when I catch sight of Erik’s red hair, blazing like a coppery beacon in the sun. Panting, I jog the next half to reach them.
Greta steers a plough as Levi whips the oxen. Erik steers a second plow and Ivo whips. I catch myself chewing my lip, afraid to request Ivo for the afternoon. Plowing is grueling, and his absence shall make the day even more difficult.
I fold my cloak over my dripping wound, and hike through the lumps of dirt. My legs tremble as they adjust to the slower pace. Levi turns. He drops the whip and runs for me, crashing into me so hard I nearly topple into the mire. He squeezes me around the waist and squints up into my face. I wrap my uninjured hand around him and force a smile.
“I’m sorry about your Mama, Addie,” he says.
I brush the flaxen hair from his dark brown eyes. “Thank you,” I say, and he hugs me tighter. “You’ll squeeze the life out of me, Levi. How did you get so strong?”
“From my Papa…and from working the fields. Papa says it puts hair on a man’s chest.” His brow furrows for a moment. “Papa must work harder than most men, for he has hair on his arms and back, too. Mama says she could shear him and make mantles.” I give a sniff of laughter at that. He smiles brightly and gestures to the whip he left in the mud. “Look, Father is letting me whip the oxen this year!”
“Really? I can hardly believe how grown you are,” I say, and he grins again before racing back to his whip.
Erik drops his plow and heads toward me. Sweat beads across his pink forehead, and the large muscles in his arms bulge under his sodden ivory tunic. Empathy has softened the normal severity of his face.
Greta follows, her face also sweaty and softened. Dark blonde hairs stick to her forehead. The muck comes halfway up to her knees. Some might pity her for being so short or mistakenly judge her sweet by the looks of her, but they’d be wrong. Greta is every bit as tough as Erik.
Ivo strides between his parents. His lips twist and blue eyes brim with pity. At the sight of him my numbness flees, tears form, and my arm throbs. I swallow the desire to race into his arms, to be vulnerable, to cry. With everyone else I try to be strong. With Ivo, I don’t have to be anything.
Levi hastens between them all, whip in hand. Their eyes are downcast, with the exception of Levi, and no one speaks. The silence makes me uncomfortable, and I wonder if I should say something.
“Your mother was a good woman,” Greta says. They nod collectively. “I shall pray for her soul, but I do not doubt the Lord has called her home.”
“Thank you,” I reply.
“How fares your Father?” asks Erik.
“I don’t know,” I choke. “I haven’t seen him since the funeral. I thought, perhaps…that perhaps… Have you seen him?”
Erik looks at me, his eyebrows raise. He shoots Greta a stern look. With a gruff jut of his chin, she and Levi return to her plough without another word. Erik pulls Ivo aside, and they share heated whispers. Ivo steps back angrily as his father speaks. He shakes his head, and his hands ball into fists. His father grabs him by the shoulders, and Ivo softens, casting his eyes downward again and nodding his head. They turn to look at me, neither of them smiling.
Erik returns to his plough, and Levi stands between his parents, whipping his father’s ox and then his mother’s. Ivo takes a step toward me, and I surge into him. He sweeps the hair from my face as I cry into his shoulder. He rubs my back as it rolls with sobs, but he does not tell me all will be well or that my mother was such an angel that it was just for God to take her. He says nothing at all.
“Something horrible… has happened,” I utter between sobs.
Ivo tenses. “Soren’s a half-pig, son of hog-shivving bastard.”
I break his grip on me, taken aback. His vulgarity is so…fluent. It shocks me despite my own loathing for the priest.
“He defiled your mother,” Ivo defends, “and left you outside the gates at night! A girl was slit from ear-to-ear outside of the Weier Gate only weeks ago.”
Behind a blink, I see Father face up in the brook, his throat slashed. It wrings my stomach. But something else Ivo said jars me from worry. How does he know what happened at the funeral?
“How do you know all this?” I ask.
“One of the dyers. She found the girl floating in the stream.”
“No. Not that.” I shake my head. “How do you know what happened at the funeral?”
“Father just told me.”
“How does he know?” I grip Ivo’s arms.
He knits his blond eyebrows, confused. “Your father told him last night.”
“When? Do you know where he is?”
“I don’t know where he is now, but I know he was at the Gilded Gopher last night.”
“When? What time? Was the hour nearer Compline or Nocturn or Matins?”
“I don’t know.”
I tremble with anger. Father let me worry all night and day for him while he was drinking himself into a stupor at the Gilded Gopher.
The Gilded Gopher, I think angrily. Its very name is a jape. From what I overheard Mama say of it, it is far from being gilded. It is a filthy pit that serves cheap ale and the company of fallen women. And, though it is a vile place, its members are all carefully selected. All members must agree before inviting a new man in, and only the most trustworthy are allowed. Membership is seen as a privilege.
“We have to ask your father where the Gilded Gopher is,” I say. “Father might still be there, or perhaps someone there knows where he is now.”
Ivo stares at the ground and scrunches his lips to the side.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I know where the Gilded Gopher is—”
“You do? Let’s go.” I yank him by the arm, but he pulls back.
“I can’t take you there.”
“Ivo, I know the rules, but this is different. I am not an angry wife going to drag her drunkard husband out by his ear. My father is missing! I have to find him.”
Ivo huffs. “My Father’ll have my hide for this.”
“Then take me as far as you can, and you can fetch him or find out where he is,” I say. He nods, and we step out of the mired fields and onto the road that leads back to the city. “Since when do you know where the Gilded Gopher is?”
“They voted me in a month ago,” he says.
It angers me to think of my Ivo inside the walls of the Gilded Gopher, his eyes lax from drink, harlots wrapping their arms about his shoulders, urging him to abandon his coin and morals for a few moments pleasure. I shake the thought from my head.
As Severin’s Gate approaches, I lift my hood, an effort to hide my face, for I do not want anyone to recognize me and offer their pity. The cloth from my cloak has stuck to the gash, and as I lift my arms it pulls at the wound. I wince, and Ivo’s eye catch on my blood-stained fingers.
He grabs my hand and shoves the sleeve of my cloak up to my shoulder, revealing the gash.
“What is this? What happened to your arm?”
I rip my hand from his and push the sleeve back down.
“It looks worse than it is. I fell on my way through the fields.”
“It needs to be bandaged.”
“After we go to the Gilded Gopher. We can stop at my house, and I shall bandage it there.”
He reaches for my arm again, and I pull away. He huffs and shakes his head at my stubbornness.
He doesn’t understand. If he’d lost his mother and his father was missing, he’d see that mending a cut is the least of my concerns. Still, we walk the rest of the way in strained silence.
The road is quiet. I had assumed the Gilded Gopher would be closer to Hay Market or on Harlot’s Alley, but we venture to the outskirts of the city near Pantaleon’s Parish. The walk gives me pause to think of what I shall say to Father when I finally find him.
I should like to scream at him for letting me worry. Then, I think, what if Father is not there? The guilt and worry converge at my throat. If I am not grateful for the parent I have left, God may take him from me. I say a quick prayer of contrition and tell the Lord I shall be forever grateful if He returns Father to me.
My legs start to quiver beneath me, and I grab Ivo’s shoulder to keep from falling. I should have eaten more than a few bites of bread.
“I stumbled,” I lie. I am weary from hunger, I convince myself, and we keep walking.
My head swims, and I stagger toward the city wall in case I need to grasp it for support. A small red stream winds its way down my middle finger, trickling slowly to the ground. My wound has reopened. Heat drains from my face as everything spirals. My legs shake violently, and I reach for the wall, sliding down it to the ground.
I hear my name, and I see a face. Ivo. My cheek stings as he slaps me.
“Addie! Wake up, Addie!” he shouts and then huffs. “You are worse than the oxen. You know that?”
“Stop hitting me,” I mumble. My eyelids bounce heavily, and I fight the urge to close them. Ivo rips the strings that tie my cloak and throws it aside. He tears off his mantle and lifts his tunic. “What are you doing?” I groan.
He pulls a knife from his belt and slices a strip from the linen undershirt beneath. It is slightly translucent with the sun behind him and riddled with holes. I notice a large golden bruise through a tear at the waist.
“I’m binding the wound.” He shoves my blood-soaked sleeve past my shoulder and ties the fabric painfully tight around my gash. I cry out as the knot pinches my skin. “It will stop the bleeding, but it has to be tight.”
He sighs and checks the wound. The blood, thick and warm, seeps through. “Not tight enough,” he says, rebinding the linen. He yanks it with all his strength, and the world goes black.
People are yelling, one belligerently.
“What is wrong with you boy?” gripes an unfamiliar voice. Erik’ll hear of this! His no-good son bringing a respectable girl here…”
“Ay! I’ma respectable woman, you stupid ’oreson!” a rough-voiced woman roars as she slaps the complainant with a loud thwap.
“What are you doing? Oh, no. Get her off the bar!”
“She’s Ansel’s daughter,” Ivo protests. “Would you have me leave her in the street?”
“Let ’er stay, Paul,” the woman orders, gruffly.
“Egh!” the man huffs, forfeiting the argument.
“God’s teeth, Ivo? What happened?” I recognize Father’s voice immediately. The relief of knowing he is here and safe makes it easy to breathe again.
“She fell, looking for you,” Ivo barks.
“Mind your tone, boy,” Father warns.
“He will,” Sal says, “or he can get the ‘ell outta my tavern.”
A sigh sounds. “Ansel had a rough night, Ivo.”
“I can tell by the smell of him,” Ivo snaps.
SWOOSH! A cold rush hits my face. I gasp and awake, soaked from head to toe with icy water. I look around, dazed, and nearly fall off the bar.
“See, she’s all right. Now ya can stop yer fightin’ and get the out. If ya don’, I got plenty a’ more cold water fer ya’s. Ansel, ya look like ya could use some.” I look to my left, and Paul’s wife, Sal, limps back to the kitchen with the empty bucket in hand.
Father holds his hands up in surrender, stumbling backward. “Alright, alright, Sal.”
Paul stands between Father and Ivo as though the two are going to fight. Though I doubt my Father can stand, much less land a punch.
“It’s just a cut,” Sal says. The wound is suddenly ice cold and then it sears. Sal dribbles a red liquid over the bandage. I grit my teeth and the sting quickly fades, but the stench burns in my eyes and nose. “A bit ‘a vinegar will keep it clean,” Sal says as she marches back to the kitchen. “She’s probly jus’ ’ungry. ’Ere, eat some meat on yer way ’ome.” She returns with a chicken leg, slamming it onto the bar in front of me. She grins, her crooked teeth hanging out of her face like thatch from a rooftop. I thank her and eat, feeling my strength return. Ivo reaches for my good arm, but I pass him and jump into Father’s arms, gripping him tightly.
“‘Ay, Ansel! Can yer girl keep a secret or do I need t’ knock ‘er out? I don’ wan’ the ’ole city knowin’ ’bout this place.” Sal peaks around the corner of the kitchen. Father looks down, wraps his arm around me, and I nod my head. “Good,” Sal says.
“You scared me,” I say.
Father gives an off-handed shrug. “It is late, I suppose.”
“Late?! It’s well past Sext!” I cry, but Father says nothing. He’s not the type of man to give apologies. He changes the topic instead.
“I think the pup wants a piece of the wolf!” Father laughs, wrapping an arm around Ivo and slapping his chest. Ivo grimaces. “See, she’s all right, boy. She worries too much, like her…” Mother is what he doesn’t say.
“You could have told her where you’d be,” Ivo says.
He kisses the top of my head. Father is always his most affectionate and jovial self after a few drinks. “Is it a surprise to either of you that you found me here?”
Before we leave, I look around and realize I am probably the only virtuous woman besides Sal to see the inside of the Gilded Gopher. There truly is nothing gilded about it. The stench of sweaty men and stale ale fills the windowless pub. Stained wooden tables and benches are packed into tight rows. Candles provide the only light.
We climb the stairs, and a woman passes us holding her tattered dress to her bosom. Dark circles encompass her unseeing eyes. My eyes avert to the wood of the stairs.
I knew such business took place here. She has sold herself, and I wonder what happened to make her so desperate. Daylight blinds me for a moment at the top of the stairs. A child lies on a pile of straw by the fire in the corner of the room. Perhaps this woman’s husband died of fever, and she has a child to feed. Perhaps she was the concubine of a burgher who promised he’d marry her, but never intended to do so. I promise myself I shall never turn to such an abase business, but surely this woman had promised herself the same at some point in her life.
I bet this girl’s parents had hopes for her once, however meager. I wonder if her parents deny her now, shamed by her trade. Better that they died before she made the bed she now lies in. I shall never put myself in such a position. I shall never give myself to a man before wedlock.
We walk silently. Ivo’s narrowed eyes stare forward. He has become hard to read. He used to be so much like little Levi, so jovial and always wearing his heart like it was a coat of arms. Some count a man by his years or trade, but it’s not age that makes us grown, it’s surviving the tragedies. The fever has worn on those of us old enough to understand it and especially those of us who have lost a family member or friend.
Perhaps he is angry with me for being stubborn or with Father for letting me worry so. We make it to my house, and Father lumbers into his workshop.
Ivo turns to head back to the fields. I reach for his arm.
“Wait,” I plead.
“I need to get back to the fields.” His reply is curt.
“I hate it when you’re angry.” I reach clumsily for his hand.
“He should have come back to tell you where he was.” He reaches out for my other hand. I wrap my fingers around it and smile.
His lips curve into a half-smile. “Did you get the fireflies?”
“I did, and the bread. Thank you, Ivo.”
He nods. “I saw it outside my window, and in the middle of March, no less.”
I shake my head and smile.
His grip on my fingers tightens. “Do you think we’ll catch more of them this summer?”
“Are you sure you’d not rather spend your nights at the Gilded Gopher?”
He laughs. “Of that…I am sure.”
“Then we can catch fireflies all night long. I owe Father a good scare.”
I’m glad to know that he’s not fond of the Gilded Gopher and the base entertainment it holds. He turns and heads back to the fields. I want to inquire about his bruises, but there seems no good way to ask. I return home to an angry Galadriel and a Father who is passed out at his workbench.
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