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Sneaky peek ~ The Wolf in My Tavern

Updated: 4 days ago

New release date 11th July Amazon, and available now through direct order!

Read the first three chapters below...

Beautiful cover art by @softdraws

Chapter 1

Ada

“Git me some supper, daughter,” my father slurs as he bangs open the door and staggers into the tiny room we call home.

It has been a long day, and I’m chilled to the bone, my threadbare clothes and worn shawl having offered no protection from the frigid sleet that pelted me during my walk home.

I’m exhausted after working all day for a pittance at the fish markets of Bleakness. I’ve not had a chance to light even a small fire.

My father’s limited patience won’t allow for that now. He backhands me when I do not move swiftly enough for his liking, sending me bowling into the table. The corner stabs my hip, and I gasp as it catches a bruise—just one of many from his constant abuse.

I hate my father.

I hate my life.

Yet this pitiful residence—this hovel—but a single room is a million times better than sleeping on the streets.

I hasten to fetch the pitcher I brought home and collect bowls and spoons from the shelf. Supper tonight, as it often is, has come via the pauper’s kitchen—vegetable and fish stew—and some bread the baker’s lad slipped to me as I passed his shop at closing time. It was burnt on one side and would usually be tossed away, but he will often save any spoiled bread for me, for he knows my situation.

I don’t have any coin. The money I make gutting fish goes straight to the local tavern via my father’s pockets. I tried keeping a bit aside once and copped a beating for my trouble.

I set a bowl in front of him as he slumps into the single rickety chair at the table shoved against one wall. Next, I pour stew for us both and slice up the bread, placing some beside his bowl. He grunts as he rips off a chunk of the burnt bread and dunks it into his stew.

My brief smile is one of quiet victory that I gave him the worst of the bread.

My lip throbs where he hit me—my hip throbs too. My fingers ache from gutting fish all day. The stench is all up in my nose, making me want to hurl the other bowl of stew at the wall.

Only, I’m hungry; so although I’m sick of the sight of fish, I take my bowl and a crust of bread to the corner of the room where I have my bedding nook. It’s not much: a few layers of old blankets with some straw underneath to provide a little padding, with a grubby curtain that can be pulled across to offer a token sense of privacy.

My father eats his food in silence. The only good thing about him drinking is that he will be asleep once he finishes his food, snoring loudly in his bed.

Sometimes, I wish he’d never come back; that he’d fall into a gutter—drunk—and stay there with the rest of the filth where he belongs. But I’m not stupid. I know that his protection is better than being alone.

For this is Bleakness: a city under a cloud of despair where the strong prey on the weak. My father is a vile man who spends our small earnings in the local tavern on a Friday and Saturday night, yet he is stronger than me and shelters me from worse predators. He works in the infamous slave markets, doing the bidding of the Blighten masters. Human prisoners are gathered from the far corners of the world and then brought here for distribution or sale. Common sense has always kept me away from that area, but everyone who lives here is aware of the shady dealings and despair traded in the underground complex by the docks.

As I finish my food, I hear the scrape of the chair and the shuffle of footsteps as my father lumbers to his bed. I rise, rinsing off the chipped crockery before I wash up.

By the time I have set our tiny home to rights, the rattle of his snores fills the room.

I unbuckle my shoes, which have seen too many repairs and won’t last me through this coming winter, remove my woolen dress, and, blowing out the candle, slip underneath the thin blankets.

My breath makes a cloud before my eyes, and I shiver, willing warmth into my body. It is dark save for a shaft of moonlight that spills through the small, dirty window.

Closing my eyes, I wish myself away.

I’ve never seen a forest in person, but at the very top of the warehouse where I prepare fish, there is a small attic window and, on a clear day, you can see over the city wall to the distant mountains with thick forests lining the lower slopes.

Bleakness has no trees, only the wood that comes from them. It is hard to imagine what it is like to be underneath the canopy of trees, but I envision a magical place that does not suffer from the smell of fish nor the scent of tar and sweat, a place where creatures I have never met exist, like rabbits, deer, and wolves.

Tucked in the corner underneath my rough bed is an old picture book that I found dropped in the gutter near one of the fancier houses in the city. A few pages have been ripped, but the rest are whole, if a bit grubby. In summer, when there is still evening light, I hide in my bedding nook and trace my fingers over the forest pictures. Although I can’t read the words, I make up a tale to go with the images on the pages.

I often wonder how someone’s trash came to be my most prized possession, an innocent storybook that has become a source of joy and bitterness in me. I want such a life, yet I understand it shall never be for me, that I am doomed to spend forever here under the shadow of my father’s abuse, gutting fish, taking a beating, and fearing what comes next.

I’m getting older, a woman now, and sometimes I see my father’s cronies leering at me.

My father only laughs when it happens.

At some point, one of them will do more.

At some point, my father might let them.

I have no mother or recollection of her, even distant, to which I might cling. Only my father and his ready fists.

The sound of his snoring is familiar. How I hate that sound. How I hate the man.

Through a tear in my nook curtain, I can see the tiny window and the pale moon. The same moon looks down upon a distant forest where rabbits and foxes play. It is the same moon for a poor girl in Bleakness or a princess in a fancy castle.

I wear rags and have holes in my shoes that I have repaired more times than I can count, while I imagine a princess wears silk gowns and eats cake. Yet we live under a single moon, and, somehow, that connects us.

My lip still throbs, and so does my hip. My hands and feet are cold. My lips are permanently cracked from the harsh weather and life, and my hands are covered in nicks as I try to work faster to prepare more fish, which lends itself to mistakes. I feel ground down by life, and although I try to claw out of this terrible pit and make a couple more coins that I might hide from my father, nothing I do is enough.

I am trapped by circumstances, by my place of birth, and a cruel father who uses up what little I have. That there is worse in this city terrifies me and makes me feel trapped even more.

Sometimes, I imagine running down the streets, all the way to the gate, and then through it. Out—running and running until I find the forest.

Only I’ve never been to the gate. The only places I go are between here and the fish markets, and I don’t linger in between.

The gate seems impossibly far away.

The forest even moreso.


 

My sleep is fitful, and when I rise and peer out the tiny window, I see rooftops blanketed by snow. I don’t like snow much. It is cold and wet, seeping through the holes I’ve repaired in my shoes and making my toes numb on the short walk from home to the fish market.

The sun has barely risen, and the clouds are low, dark, and billowing. Yet the snowy blanket makes this ugly city look beautiful, and I find wonder in that.

How can such a lost place hold such heartbreaking beauty?

I want to soak it up, store it in my heart, forget how it makes my toes numb and the biting chill waiting for me outside that will sting the cracks in my lips and find the weak spots in my winter shawl.

“What are you gazing at, lass? Put yer shoes on. We need to go.”

I turn to find my father shrugging into his coat.

I frown. He is usually gone by now.

“Shoes, lass,” he grunts.

A strange premonition of danger increases my heart rate. I hasten to do as he says lest I incur his wrath or fist. No sooner have I buckled my shoes and snatched up my woolen shawl than he fists my arm and directs me toward the door.

“Don’t give me no trouble, Ada.”

Fear seizes my heart as he swings open the door and thrusts me through the gap. He doesn’t let go all the way down the rickety stairs and along the passages, even when we are out in the snow.

“Where are we going?”

I’m freezing already. The sky is dark and heavy looking, and little snowflakes touch against my skin and melt as I’m marched down the cobbled streets that are already white from the falling snow. He ignores me. There is an emptiness in his eyes. I don’t meet his gaze often, but as he stops to let a cart go by and turns to look down at me, I know a new level of fear.

“Old enough,” he says, his gaze raking over me critically, “to earn me some decent coin.”

Horror lodges in my throat, robbing me of my voice as the cart passes. Then he continues dragging me with him, his fingers locked tight on my arm.

“No!” I beat at him and try to pry his cruel fingers away.

He shakes me. “Quieten down, lass. Draw attention, and you’ll regret it.”

The dread that settles in the pit of my belly tells me I will regret not fighting more, for I recognize the route he brings me is not to the fish market, but somewhere far worse. A swift blow to my stomach takes the fight and breath from me. Tightening his grip on my arm, he continues on. His steps are brisk, and I stumble, tripping here and there. Not that he cares.

As an imposing stone building looms before us, my anxiety soars.

“No, please. I will work harder. I can make more coin.” The pitiful words pour out of me. I want to tell him to rot in hell, but my pleas turn desperate and continue to fall from my lips.

His laugh is nasty. “Yer asking for a sound beating if ye keep up this backtalk. Don’t want to leave more marks on yer face lest it lower yer worth, but there are other places I can beat as will help ye keep ye trap shut.”

He’s my only source of protection, but now he’s about to betray me. I question what I did wrong. Maybe I could have worked harder… or left and tried things on my own. I tell myself he can’t really mean to do this and that I’m mistaken, but he’s already dragged me into the building. And as he nods to the two beta males standing at a door and stalks straight into an office, I can deny the truth no more.

He thrusts me forward and slams the door shut behind us.

A dirty, barred window lets weak winter light in from the left. Directly opposite the door, a bald man sits behind a sturdy wooden desk. His jowls are heavy, and his eyes have a greedy, unpleasant quality as they rake over me. A pipe hangs from the side of his mouth, and the air is clouded by the sweet scent of tobacco and the stench of stale sweat. The chipped desk surface bears a messy jumble of scrolls, a broken pipe, a leather tobacco pouch, and a small string-bound sack. Two more men, rough-looking, stand flanking his desk.

“The lass is ready, Bone,” my father says. “Ye promised me good coin.”

Bone, the man behind the desk, inspects me as he puffs on the pipe. I’m shaking. I would try to run, despite the two thugs, but my father is holding my arm tight enough to make my fingers numb.

“Ten.”

“Ten?” My father sneers. “Fifteen, and not a penny less.”

Bone sets his pipe aside and nods to the thug on his right, who steps forward, a menacing glint in his eyes. I try to shrink back, but my father keeps a firm grip. All too easily, the thug grips my bodice and tugs, tearing it down and exposing me to his eyes.

My free hand flies there. He slaps it away and steps to the side, allowing Bone to look me over. Heat fills my cheeks, the shame and humiliation of being exposed like this before strangers, while my father waits in anticipation of more coin.

“I’ll give you twelve,” Bone says. “Best I can do. Been a lot of fresh meat, and prices are down. She might look better after she’s been cleaned up. Some like ‘em skinny,” —he shrugs— “but most prefer a little more flesh on the bone.”

A long silence follows as my father mulls this over. My heart pounds in my chest as I pray he might find this deal unacceptable and decide to send me back to work.

“Fine,” my father says.

I feel the heat leech from my face as the second thug surges forward to take my father’s place.

“Father, no,” I cry, clinging to his coat before my fingers are snatched away.

He doesn’t spare me a glance. He is already holding his hand out so Bone can drop a small pouch into it.

I fight with everything I have. The thugs barely notice. They don’t even bother to subdue me with their fists. Nothing I do stops them as they take me from the room and down a long, sloping stone corridor.

The stone walkway is lined on both sides by doors, behind which I hear sobbing. They stop at one. The man on my right takes a giant keyring from his pocket. He jangles a key in the lock before swinging the sturdy wooden door wide.

I’m thrust inside. The door slams shut, and I hear the jangle of the key again before their footsteps move on.

I sink to my knees, numb, trying to work out what I did wrong that my father would do this—trying to make sense of this. My dress is ripped down the front, but that humiliation seems of little consequence as I grapple with the enormity of my fate.

Hearing shuffling, I lift my head to find another girl approaching me from a shadowy corner. She is blonde and pretty, with freckles across her nose. Her dress is still whole, and although grubby, I can see immediately that it is good quality wool. She kneels beside me and puts her arm around my shoulders.

“I’m Betsy,” she says.

“Ada,” I reply. That is all I can manage before a sob breaks from my chest.

She draws me closer, and I hear her crying too. We cling to one another, strangers brought together through terrible circumstances.

“My pa runs a tavern,” she says. “Someone snatched me off the streets as I returned from the market. He’s going to get us out. I promise you.”

I wish I had the kind of father that might come for me. But mine is very different: the kind of man to sell out his only child.

I wish I could believe her words.

I wish I could cling to the hope that they raise in me, but I fear that it is false.

We hold one another in the frigid cell, awaiting our fate.


 



Excerpt The Wolf in My Tavern Copyright © 2024 L.V. Lane

Coming 19th July!




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