Authors: Emma Barron
Published by Liquid Silver Books, imprint of Atlantic Bridge Publishing, 10509 Sedgegrass Dr, Indianapolis, Indiana 46235. Copyright © 2012, Emma Barron. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Liquid Silver Books
This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents and dialogues in this book are of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.
Anja knows her father has been drinking and gambling away most of their money since she’s the one left to run the family’s mill. She has no idea just how precarious their situation is, however, until her father comes home from a night spent drinking and gambling at the tavern and urges Anja to flee into the woods. He has told their landlord, the cruel and violent Werner, that Anja can turn straw into gold, and now Werner vows to keep Anja captive until she has paid off her father’s debts.
Tillz was just a boy when a brutal attack left his parents dead and Tillz scarred – both physically and emotionally. He has spent his life since then hiding in his cottage in the woods, lurking in the shadows, avoiding human contact whenever possible. The nearby villagers no longer remember him or his family; he has instead become a ghost to them, a story to scare their children into obeying, a
. He is perfectly content to keep it that way, but when a dreaded trip into the village to procure necessary supplies reveals Anja’s predicament, he is seized with an impulse to help.
Tillz offers Anja the gold she needs in exchange for a kiss, but neither of them is prepared for the strong and inexplicable attraction between them. They spend three increasingly passionate nights together, both convinced those moments will be all they have. But when Werner decides he is entitled to keep Anja and the gold, Tillz must step out of the shadows to save the woman he has grown to love.
For J & E
Anja picked her way gingerly through the muddy street, clutching her skirts and carefully placing each foot to avoid the puddles lest her boots sink in up to her ankles. She squinted through the rain, trying to keep her bearings. The night was moonless and dark, the only illumination coming from the random flashes of lightning—and they only served to heighten the sense of blind disorientation rather than alleviate it. Another gust of bitter autumn wind tore at her clothing, opening her woolen cloak, and tugging at the heavy cotton skirts of her
. She pulled the cloak tighter around her throat in a vain attempt at keeping the weather’s icy tendrils from snaking into her clothing to curl around her skin.
Anja quickly walked past the neat rows of white, timber-framed buildings and low-slung cottages of the village. Above her, the heavy wooden signs hanging from the shops swung on their chains, creaking and groaning. Most of the shops were dark and shuttered, but she saw the faint glow of lanterns in the windows of the
. She knew the cooper and the cobbler were still inside their respective shops, hunched over their worktables. The village was nestled snugly in a valley, but beyond it the mountains loomed, and the Hessian forest was dark and foreboding.
She picked up her pace, no longer caring if she splashed in a puddle and muddied her boots. She was tired and wet, sick with worry over what her night’s work had revealed to her. She could see her
now, the cottage looking squat and lonely on the edge of the village, and she wanted nothing more than to sit by the fire and warm up.
When Anja finally reached the cottage, she felt as if the short walk from her father’s mill had instead been an epic trek of a thousand miles. Once she entered, she shut the door behind her as quickly as she could, already shedding her wet cloak and hat before it was fully closed.
A single candle burned weakly on the table that was the centerpiece of the room, providing the only light. A cast-iron pot hung by its handle over the hearth, the smell of
filling the cottage, but there was no cozy fire keeping it warm, only barely glowing embers.
“Father,” Anja called out, though she knew before she spoke there would not be an answer. The cottage had only three rooms, and had he been home, her father would have heard her come in and greeted her.
Anja tried not to let disappointment rise within her. She had just come from the mill so she knew her father wasn’t tending the business, even though he was behind in the work and the sacks of grain were piling up. And he wasn’t here at home, keeping the fire stoked to ward off the chill seeping through the thin panes of glass in the windows. That left only one place her father would be on such an evening: the tavern.
Anja sighed as she piled a few logs under the cook pot—carefully pretending not to notice the dwindling stock of firewood—and worked to relight the fire, eager to drive away the chill that had settled in her bones. Once the fire was going again, she would change out of her wet clothes and then eat. She would steadfastly refuse to think about her father gambling away their meager funds as he drank himself into a stupor.
She had managed to coax the fire back to life when the front door swung open, hitting the wall of the cottage with a
and allowing a gust of wind to roar into the tiny room and threaten to snuff the flames.
“Father! Shut the door!” she scolded. She hurried to do the job herself, guessing by the way her father listed to the side as he stood gaping at her stupidly that he was too drunk to comply with her command.
“Anja!” he cried congenially, as if seeing her for the first time after a long absence. As usual, the drink had made him cheerful and demonstrative. He threw his arms wide in an attempt to embrace her, but managed only to sway precariously.
“You best sit, Father, before you fall down.” Anja led Gregor to one of the two chairs by the table. She fetched him some water and a bowl of
—cold still, though she suspected her father would hardly notice. She decided she would eat as well; her rumbling stomach winning out over the discomfort of her still wet clothes.
“Tell me, Father, did you make our fortune at cards this evening?” she asked between bites of meat. She expected him to launch into his usual drunken recounting of his exploits, raucously embellishing every detail and laughing at his own ridiculousness. She was surprised when her father suddenly seemed to sober up at her question. He sat straighter and gazed intently at his food, as if he were afraid to meet her eye.
“Er … no … haven’t made our fortune yet tonight…” Gregor said. He cleared his throat and shifted in his chair, and Anja wondered why he acted like a nervous schoolboy receiving a reprimand from a stern teacher. “But the happenings of my evening surely hold no interest for you. Tell me instead what you have been doing this night.”
Anja wondered at how clear and distinct her father’s speech was—almost as if he hadn’t been drinking at all—and how quickly he seemed to want to divert her attention from what he had been doing that evening. She knew, however, that any direct questioning would only cause him to withdraw even more, and she would get no further information. It hardly mattered, though. She didn’t really need to know the exact details of his doings, but she did need to ask him the questions she was dreading, the questions she really didn’t want to know the answers to.
“I have been at the mill all evening,” Anja replied, and it did not escape her notice how her father sank even lower in his chair, how he inspected his food ever more closely. “I organized the stores and went through the ledgers.” Anja thought if her father sank any lower he would be sitting in a heap on the floor. “You must tell me, Father, where all the money has gone. I have seen the sacks of grain come in and the flour go out. I know you manage to get the milling done. You must work at least a little in between your nights at the tavern.” She couldn’t resist adding the last, even though she knew it was disrespectful to speak to her father in such a manner.
Gregor ran a shaky hand through his dark hair, causing the already disheveled locks to stand up straighter. “I … I haven’t any idea … it should all be there.” He shifted in his chair, tugging at his wrinkled and stained coat. “If there is any missing, perhaps the
has run off with it and hidden it in his forest lair.” Gregor gave a weak laugh but coughed and shifted once again after casting a furtive glance at Anja’s face.
?” Anja asked with disdain. “The goblin said to live in the woods who steals the cattle and causes the storms and droughts and eats the naughty children? Really, Father, I am not some petulant child who can be frightened into obeying by the specter of a scary story.”
“It is not all just stories,” Gregor mumbled to his food. “There are plenty here who still believe the old tales of sorcery and magic. It’s best not to discount them all so lightly.”
Anja continued as if her father hadn’t spoken. “You’ve gambled it all away again, haven’t you?” As usual, when Anja had seen the ledgers and realized the state of their finances, she had tried to convince herself that it was simply a mistake in the bookkeeping. She wanted to believe her father was merely bad with numbers rather than a hopeless sot who regularly drank and gambled away their earnings. And as usual, she could not fully convince herself of that, and was forced to face the truth of who her father was.
She tamped down the panic that welled in her breast. Panic would not fix their predicament. Panic would not buy their food or settle their debts for the equipment repairs or pay their rent to Werner. She would find a way to rescue them from her father’s pilsner-soaked irresponsibility as she always did.
Gregor looked quickly at her, then back down to his bowl. “I’ve only lost a few marks to Werner. Surely he’ll let us just add those debts to the rent—”
Anja cut off her father with a raised hand. “Werner? You lost money to Werner?” The panic swelled within her once again. “Oh, Father, how could you?”
“It’s just a few marks, as I said,” Gregor replied defensively. “I’m sure he will be reasonable about repayment—”
“When have you ever—ever in your life—known Werner to be reasonable?” Anja looked down at her
, her once ravenous appetite gone. “When have you ever known Werner to forget a debt or allow a forbearance or to settle any claim in any manner excluding cruelty and violence?”
Gregor pushed back from the table, rose to his feet, and paced about the small cottage. “I know! Anja, I know I have made a mess of things!” He ran a hand through his hair again, all final traces of his initial drunken affability now replaced by a panicked nervousness.
“How will we repay him?” Anja resisted the urge to leap from her seat, grab her father by the shoulders, and shake an answer from him. Instead, she remained sitting in her chair, carefully schooling her features to project a calmness she certainly did not feel. “Where will we find the money to pay him your gambling debt on top of the rent money owed for the mill and our cottage?”
“I will think of something. I will. I’ll…” Gregor walked another distracted circle around the room. He paused before the small window near the door and looked out onto the road. Lightning flashed as he stood there, lighting up the road and illuminating Gregor’s profile. He stiffened, then turned to Anja, his face as white as the bolt of lightning.
“Run,” Gregor said, his voice low and urgent, barely above a whisper but infused with alarm. “Anja, run into the woods and hide. Stay there until I come for you or send word.”
“Father, what on earth are you talking about? Have you suddenly gone mad?”
“My God, my God … I didn’t think he’d believe me … I didn’t think he would take the tale seriously…” Gregor resumed his pacing, this time his movements frenetic.
Anja rose from her chair and went to her father, grabbing his arm to stop his motion. She was truly worried he had lost control of his mental faculties. “You didn’t think who would believe what?”
“Werner,” Gregor said, looking past Anja in an attempt to avoid meeting her eyes.
Anja’s heart dropped. “What about Werner? You must tell me what you are talking about.” She gave her father a gentle shake. “You must start making sense.”
Gregor finally looked her in the eye. “It happened tonight at the tavern,” he said, his words tumbling out in rush. “I was just drinking my pint, minding my own business, when Werner came in. He became angry when he saw me, and started bellowing about the rent I owe him. I told him I haven’t got the money—he knows I haven’t got it—and I needed a bit more time. Werner said he had given me enough time, and I needed to pay up. If I didn’t presently have the marks I owed him, he said we could both try our luck at a game of chance. If I won, the debt would be erased.”