READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: The Storyteller's Daughter, by Victoria McCombs
To her dismay, Cosette is born Giftless in the kingdom of Westfallen. She's determined to appear otherwise, until the King intends her to use as a pawn in his war. Finding herself caught in a lie, Cosette seeks the help of the dark king—of Rumpelstiltskin... Fans of Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted and Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slippers will enjoy Victoria McCombs's riveting debut, out THIS TUESDAY!
Preorder your copy here:
If I could choose my Gift, I’d want it to be practical like making bread or shoes to provide for my struggling family. If I couldn’t have a practical Gift, then I’d want something extravagant that people would pay to see, and then I’d use the money to buy provisions so we’d never go hungry again. If the Gift wasn’t practical or brilliant, then it held little value in the eyes of the merry folk of Autumn Leaf Village.
Futile, they said. There was no point in wishing for things I’d never have.
The elder ladies gathered under the thick oak tree at the start of the day to whisper about the Gifts behind their large hats, and I caught snippets of their chatter when I heard my name roll from their tongues. Each carried their own tale passed down from their grandmothers of how the Gifts came to be: sometimes it was a foolish wizard, sometimes a sorceress in training, once it was a beggar girl who made a wish. Whatever way Westfallen stumbled into the Gifts was unknown for certain, but everyone had one. Every child born showed signs of a special talent that set them apart from each other. Everyone had a piece of magic in their souls.
Everyone except me.
Somehow, out of all the children born in Westfallen over the past hundred years, I was the first to be born Giftless, and while I didn’t know why my soul held no magic, I often wondered if it was because I was unworthy. The elder ladies seemed to think so.
Without a Gift to guide me, most folks believed I’d spend the rest of my days working in my parents’ tavern.
It wasn’t that I particularly disliked working here. In fact, there were many things I loved about the Riverfront Tavern: the smell of Lolly’s cinnamon cakes, the warm glow from the two fires, the jovial laughter that could be heard from outside. But my favorite was when Papa got out his old barstool and leaned into it, and the whole tavern fell into a hush to hear his stories. Those were my favorite times.
That was Papa’s Gift: storytelling, and he was the best storyteller Autumn Leaf Village had come by in years. He learned to talk before he was one year old and had been “weaving mesmerizing tales ever since. After fifty years of storytelling, people said that his stories kept getting better each year, but they were wrong—his stories had always been this good.
Years ago, numerous taverns thrived in Autumn Leaf Village. But times grew hard and people’s taste for such establishments dwindled, until now only two taverns remained—ours and Haystack Hallow, which sat out north behind the farms. Haystack Hallow was closer for many folks, but it didn’t have Papa’s stories. Mama stood tall as she served the customers, quick to tell any that my father was her husband. It was her one true claim to fame: being married to Papa.
Mama’s Gift wasn’t so special. She could turn any apple into a peach, but only on Saturdays. We’d eaten every dish with peaches imaginable, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I preferred apples.
At least she had a Gift, though. I’d eat a million peaches if it meant I had a Gift. There was nothing I could do about it; the years had passed and taken all hope of a Gift with it.
Tonight, the Riverfront Tavern was filled with customers. Our tables were set up in a wide W-shape in the winter months to share the heat from the fireplaces, and Papa would sit in the corner between the two as he told his stories. The conversations and laughter could always be heard from outside, along with Aiden’s singing, and tonight was no exception. Papa, with his trouser pants rolled around his thick socks, sat perched on the edge of his old stool, bent forward with one hand on his knee as he told a tale of a dragon and a girl who could control fire. That would be quite a Gift, to wield fire. I’d never met someone with that Gift before, and I didn’t know if I believed there to be such a person.
Sometimes I approached Papa after one of his stories to ask if the tale was true, and he’d get this gleam in his eye, lean forward, and say with a wink, “If the story lives in our hearts, then that makes it true.” He wasn’t answering my question, but he knew I didn’t really want to know. I wanted to pretend all the stories were true.
I moved my broom toward the front, where old boots lay in a stack by the door. With the winter months upon us the folks’ shoes were dirtier than a stable’s ground, and we encouraged them to take off their shoes and warm their feet by one of our crackling fires. Sometimes I came down to sleep by one of the fires on the nights that my room wouldn’t hold heat. Papa would hear and usually come out to join me, and we would cuddle up with blankets on the warm floorboards and fall asleep to one of his stories.
No matter how old I got, I was never too old to fall asleep to his stories.
Aiden sat at the far end of the bar in the corner, half-masked by shadows. Besides Papa’s stories, Aiden was my next favorite thing about the tavern.
“You wouldn’t keep missing spots if you weren’t looking at him so often.” My sister, Anika, threw a rag at me, which I avoided, and for a moment I thought about swinging my broom toward her feet in retaliation, but Mama walked by between us and I thought better of it. Anika didn’t understand my courtship. It wasn’t that she was too young, as at seventeen she was certainly old enough to be romantically inclined, but she seemed set on avoiding such feelings.
“Hush now.” Mama retrieved the thrown rag and sent us both a look with lowered eyebrows, sending me back to work with my broom. “If Cosette has fallen in love, she isn’t to be blamed for that.”
My cheeks flushed at the comment, and I moved the broom faster.
“She can’t be in love already. Are you in love?” There was a noticeable tinge of disgust in Anika’s voice.
“I’d rather not be pestered about it, if you don’t mind.”
Mama huffed as she whirled herself around and wagged her long finger at me. “I most certainly do mind! Hanna’s daughter was married just last week, and she’s a year younger than you! Oh, the questions I got about when you would settle down!”
I put up my hands defensively at her sudden outburst. “It’s only been six months of courtship. I’m still working things out.”
Her hands mounted on her hips. “Cosette, tell me you aren’t planning on running off that nice boy.”
I straightened my back and drew my lips into a thin line. “No. If you must know, I like him quite a lot.”
She smiled then, as if she won some sort of battle.
I thought I would have another year before Mama brought up marriage. I knew I had a few years until Papa did. My hands couldn’t move the broom away from this conversation fast enough. “I think I should focus on my new apprenticeship before I jump into a marriage.”
If Mama replied, I was too far away to hear it.
The friendship between Aiden and me took me by surprise. He was the sort of man that everyone noticed: loud and cheerful and always around. If he was in the room, you’d know it, because you’d hear his laughter above all others. I was the opposite of him in that way; I was the girl that no one saw, usually because my face was hidden behind a book. Aiden had a word for me. Simple, he had said. I had taken offense to that until I realized he meant it as a compliment. He found me refreshing, and after years of friendship, it was no surprise to anyone when he asked to court me half a year ago.
After my chore and his song were over, I weaved my way back to him, sitting on the nearest stool and taking back the book he had been holding for me.
“What’s this one about?”
I showed him the cover as I searched for my place among the pages. “A boy who trades places with his dead brother. He’s a spy, you see, and the brother is a knight.”
Aiden feigned interest by nodding his head. “Does he get caught?”
I grinned. “Not yet.”
Aiden let me be as I read. His usual pullover shirt and trousers were paired with a single-breasted vest and shawl collar tonight, making him look very grown-up. He hadn’t shaved this morning, and I could see a hint of dark hair stretching down toward his chin. Even though we sat near the kitchen, I could smell the garden on Aiden. His family grew one of the largest plots of vegetables in the village, and the smell of it clung to him. They had a greenhouse to work in when the winter brought its frost.
After a few moments of silence, Aiden prodded me again with a gentle nudge under the bar, but when I looked up, I was surprised to find his eyes weren’t focused on me, but rather on something over my shoulder. “I think your mother is going to have a meltdown if you don’t get up. She’s glared at you three times now."
“With a groan, I folded my book back up. “But I only just sat down!” As I glanced behind to Mama, she lowered her eyebrows at me. Though excited at the prospect of my courtship, Mama still prioritized the tavern over anything. She grew up here, and as result, she loved the tavern as much as she loved Papa. As she caught my eye, she pointed a sharp finger toward the counter, to which I nodded, replacing the book in my hand with a rag that I half-heartedly drew across the bar.
Aiden studied my book in his hand. “If you knew how to write, I’d say you could write some beautiful stories, and maybe we’d find your Gift after all.”
For a moment my eyes closed, and my chest fell just enough that he wouldn’t see. He was just being helpful, I had to remind myself. He wanted me to find my place in the village. People are defined by their Gifts.
Who you marry, what job you have, it all depended on your Gift. Those with a special Gift were treated well, married nicely, and lived happily. There was a man who, if given stalks of cotton, could turn them into fine clothes overnight. His family was always dressed nicely, and he was given the hand of a count’s daughter. Another man could conjure up bread. He also married a count’s daughter.
But me? I was overlooked. I had no skills to help me, no talent to impress with. I knew all hope of finding a Gift was gone, but Aiden wasn’t as convinced.
“I’ve tried to think up a few stories in my mind, but they aren’t very good.” The corners of my mouth lifted up to mimic a smile, but my lips felt as tight as my chest. I’d never tell him I couldn’t bear being constantly reminded of my shortcoming. I knew it was thoughtfulness that drove him to search for my Gift, but his consideration blinded him to my pain.
Aiden’s Gift was music, and while it wasn’t a rare Gift, since four others in our village had it, his voice was my favorite. Mama agreed and paid him better than the rest. Soon, he became the only one she paid at all.
Still hopeful, Aiden shrugged one shoulder. “It’s fine, we’ll find your Gift one day.”
My back leaned against the bar as I folded the rag in my hand. “I was waiting to tell you after I knew it would go well, but I might as well tell you now,” I said. “I’ve been offered to train under Seamstress Kira.”
Aiden’s eyes grew as wide as his smile and he dropped my book. “Seamstress! That’s splendid! When did you find out?”
“Just last night. Mama set it up, if you can imagine that. They’ve planned to send Oria here to work while I train there, starting tomorrow.” The smile on my face was real this time. Life as a seamstress wasn’t much better than a tavern owner, but it was steady work, and a respected job. Seamstress Kira had acquired the task from her parents, and she managed to marry into a comfortable life with a baker. I could be happy with a life like that.
Seamstress Kira was known to be a kind woman with a gentle voice and a knack for making fine pies. I’d enjoy working alongside her. More importantly than that, I was finally going to have a way to identify myself. I would be a seamstress. It was an important step that I needed to take if I ever wanted to be my own person away from this tavern.
Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be the plain girl with no Gift anymore. I would be more than the Storyteller’s Ungifted daughter.
Aiden shared my joy as he leapt from his seat to embrace me tightly. “This will be great,” he breathed into my hair. “One day, I’ll build you a shop so we will have a proper place for you to work and for us to live.”
He’d never mentioned a future between us before.
I wish I could have taken the comment in stride or said something reaffirming back to him. Instead, when he pulled back, I strained a smile and tried not to look uncomfortable. If he noticed my unease, it didn’t show.
Before I could come up with something to say, Anika came over to tell Aiden that he could sing now. He thanked her, then turned to me. “I’ll see you after?”
I simply nodded.
Aiden moved away but Anika stayed and examined me for a moment. “You alright?” She was more perceptive than I gave her credit for. The things that Aiden never noticed, she picked up on in a matter of seconds. As I grabbed my rag, I nodded to her and moved on, unwilling to share my confused heart with my habitually mocking sister.
“You should know.” Anika’s hand caught mine, and her eyes shifted to both sides before she pulled me toward the bar and leaned her head in. Her voice lowered and dripped with intrigue as if she was sharing a spy’s secrets with me. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but that’s never stopped me before. Knowing you, you’ll want to think about this for a while. Aiden’s planning to ask for your hand in marriage.”
My mouth fell open and Anika nudged me. “You can’t tell that I told you, and no, I don’t know when. I just heard Mama and Papa talk about it.” She didn’t give me another moment before she glanced toward Mama and slipped away, leaving me with my questions and confusion. If I tried to sort out my feelings with her, it’d do nothing but cause her to regret telling me in the first place, but I considered sneaking into her room later to talk anyway. A slight tremor ran through my hand, and I pressed the rag into it to steady myself before peeking at Aiden. His eyes weren’t on me, and I forced myself back into movement to hide my confusion.
As I worked, I constantly glanced up at Aiden, hoping for sudden clarity when I searched his face. He sang beautifully, occasionally looking at me and winking, completely unaware of the battle going on within my heart.
Anika was right. I needed time to process this before he asked for my hand.
I loved him. I knew that. But would I love him for the rest of my life?
A part of me, and I couldn’t tell how big that part was though I knew it was there, wanted to marry Aiden. But along with that lived doubt, and that doubt cast a crippling fear into my thoughts. When I said yes, I wanted to be completely certain, and I couldn’t say that I was there yet.
I wouldn’t risk hurting Aiden’s feelings by giving him an answer, then changing my mind later. That meant I had maybe a few weeks to become sure of a decision that would affect the rest of my life.
“Is he going to fight in the war? Oh, his mama must be beside herself! She already lost one to the war!”
Ah yes. The war.
I tried not to eavesdrop on Seamstress Kira as she spoke, but with the shop empty there was little else to listen to. They sipped dandelion tea as they chattered, sending a sweet smell through the air that made my stomach yearn.
“He leaves for training in a few days. Appears they are desperate for more men.” Her friend had a thicker voice, while Seamstress Kira’s was chipper.
“Seems to me they should just stop fighting and send all the boys back home.”
Westfallen had been at war for what felt like ages. For nine long summers and even longer winters, our army fought against our neighbors, Osmelee and Tames, with the help of our allies in Vestalin. With each passing year the money grew tighter, and the tension grew stronger as families ached for relief and to have their sons back.
Everyone knew somebody who had gone to war, and most knew someone who had lost a loved one to the fight. I couldn’t imagine their pain. I had no brothers to send and Papa’s bad leg kept him from putting on the uniform.
What had started as a border dispute turned into a renegotiation of treaties and trade rights, and gradually shifted into an all-out power struggle between the four countries that used to be sisters. It was said that a powerful, dark northern magic kept the war alive, but Papa said it was the pride of kings, not some magic.
“’Least we have several ladies who are able-bodied, keep us going until the boys come home. Speaking of: you got a new apprentice, I see!”
I ducked my head just as I heard the rocking chair squeak as the friend leaned forward to peer in the back room. I hoped it wasn’t obvious that I was eavesdropping. I hid in there, heckling the flax plants as I’d been shown. I’d envisioned myself sewing skirts or bell sleeves by now, but the first weeks of my apprenticeship had dragged by, and each day found me in the back room crouched near a barrel, heckling until my fingers were raw. It seemed I would be putting in the work so I could appreciate the end product, as Seamstress Kira had explained. That meant before sewing together pieces of fabric, I first had to make the cloth. I spent weeks hunching over a bucket, hackling flax plants across boards to prepare the fibers for spinning. The board in my hand had long needles sticking out of it, catching the flax and pulling the leftover plant and small fibers from the longer strands. It was a tedious task that I didn’t much care for.
I chastised myself for being greedy for a simpler chore when was lucky to get this apprenticeship at all.
From where I was sitting, I could see the main room and front door. On one side of the room sat premade clothes, arranged near the windows so passersby could easily see them. The other wall held an array of fabric, each rolled up and stacked on top of each other so customers could pick their color. In the corner by the fabric, two rocking chairs swung back and forth. Wide feet would rock in and out of my view as Seamstress Kira chatted with a friend I couldn’t identify. Their words floated into the room, preoccupying me as I ran my tool through the flax.
“Yes, she’s quite good,” Seamstress Kira generously said.
“Can’t say I place her. What’s her name?”
“Cosette, daughter of Mortan, who owns the Riverfront Tavern.”
I waited to see if she would identify me. She clicked her tongue a few times before I heard a small gasp. “You don’t mean…the girl with no…” There was a clear decrease in volume and the squeaking from the rhythmic rocking was halted short. I didn’t need to hear the rest of her sentence to know she’d placed me.
“Yes, that girl, but it’s not a problem.”
“Can she work?” I didn’t know if the friend sounded disgusted or intrigued, but her tone lowered.
“‘Course she can, it doesn’t affect her ability to do work,” Seamstress Kira laughed, while my face flushed.
“I just mean, well, she’s not like the rest of us.”
I didn’t know Seamstress Kira well, and she would have no reason to defend me. I stopped running the flax through the board to hear her response. It came gently. “I don’t see why not. I don’t use my Gift to work.”
Another click of the tongue. “It’s not natural. Someone that even magic won’t touch? You must be careful about that one.”
I had heard it all before, but each time I allowed the remarks to get into my head and pierce my heart. There had never been a child born in Westfallen in the past hundred years who didn’t have a Gift. All the children before me and all the children since were marked with a Gift by the age of three.
I liked to say it didn’t bother me, but the tears threatening to fill my eyes told a different story.
To spare me from future remarks from her friend, Seamstress Kira appeared with a golden apple to relieve me from my task. She admired my work, choosing a few pieces that needed to be heckled a few more times, but otherwise looked very pleased with what I’d accomplished. Once satisfied, I removed the smaller fibers from the needles and put them in their own pile to be used to stuff pillows or as kindling, whichever Seamstress Kira chose.
“Good, very good. Now you come back tomorrow, and I’ll teach you how to spin this into thread. Sweep the floors before you go. I assume you don’t need me showing you that?”
“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am,” I said with a small curtsy. Seamstress Kira gave me a dimpled smile as she pointed toward the broom in the corner then took off her apron and hung it on a hook before returning to her friend.
“You know what really keeps that war going,” the friend’s heavy voice seeped back into the room, once again not caring if she was overheard. I turned my body so I could eavesdrop better as I swept. “It’s that dreadful curse, that’s what it is.”
My ears perked up. A curse? This was news to me.
“Oh, you can’t believe that.”
“But I do! You should too, ‘less you want trouble coming for you. That old king invited magic and mischief into his kingdom, and for a hundred years since it’s brought nothing but trouble.” Her voice was serious as she breathed the words and I could picture her shaking her finger.
The doubt persisted in Seamstress Kira’s voice. “The war has only been going on nine years, not a hundred.”
“It from that curse that the old king got! It’s been sitting around almost a hundred years now! Not good to let it sit so long. The war is punishment. She must be satisfied.”
Seamstress Kira clucked as she turned about to check on me. I had stopped to listen and stood there with the broom in my hand and eyes wide. She shook her head at me.
“Go on home now, Cosette. There’s nothing but high tales here.”
Quickly I put my broom back in the corner, ashamed to be caught eavesdropping on gossip. I grabbed my apple from my seat and thanked Seamstress Kira several times as I backed out of her home. Her friend was watching me with eyes that seemed to warn me to heed her story. I recognized the friend, but still couldn’t pin her name.
I wondered if there was truth to her tale. Papa once warned us against tales of strong magic, and while Anika believed in such a thing, I prided myself on being more rational. The Gifts held a limited magic. But they were different from powerful, free flowing magic one could control with their hands. The Gifts couldn't cast curses that lasted a hundred years, and they couldn't create wars.
Like me, Seamstress Kira sounded like a rational woman and I figured we would get along well. She was a kind lady, a bit heavy with round eyes and even rounder cheeks. While our time together was pleasant, I was not looking forward to seeing her daughter at the tavern. All the kindness that Seamstress Kira had didn’t translate to Oria, who was a stuck-up hog if you asked me. Papa has asked me not to call people that, but even he said that he was glad I wasn’t friends with that girl.
Aiden seemed to get along quite fine with Oria, and me working at the shop today meant that she’d be at the tavern tonight. She didn’t seem to respect our courtship, though I guessed she would respect an engagement. There was one benefit to saying yes. That’s not a reason to get engaged, I reminded myself. Clearly, I’d come no closer to a decision.
Thanks to the information from Anika, I’d been more intentional about my time with Aiden, constantly pretending that he was my husband to gauge how I felt about it. Sometimes it thrilled me and other times it scared me. Time and time again, the scenario of him asking for my hand ran through my mind, and each time I tested out saying yes.
I replayed the imaginary scene in my head as I walked home, wondering what it would feel like to be Aiden’s forever.
His shadowed face lit by flames,
Rumpelstiltskin is my name...
For as long as anyone can remember, every child in Westfallen has been born with a Gift, and these Gifts defined them.
Then Cosette is born, Giftless.
An attempt to hide her misfortune brings her before the King, who entraps her to use her Gift as a pawn in his war.
Caught in a lie, Cosette desperately searches for a power strong enough to free her. Intrigued by whispers of an old king and a dark curse, she calls upon Rumpelstiltskin and finds him trapped in a magic deeper than she bargained for. Now, Cosette must fight to reclaim her freedom from the King and break Rumpel’s curse. When time runs out, she’ll lose more than her heart. She’ll lose her life.