The Crown of Bones
Gisela knows about sacrifice all too well. She abandoned her education, friends, and fairy tales to support her family and care for her sister.But when she jilts a wealthy suitor, Gisela is chosen for another type of sacrifice.As an Offering to the Goddess Bergot, Gisela and seven others are sent on a deadly quest for a mythical crown. To return home, Gisela must overcome obstacles which darkly resemble the fairy tales she once believed.Weaving through a tapestry of friendship, romance, violence, and magic—Gisela becomes the target of an ancient evil force, while an ominous detail from the past haunts her at every turn.To what lengths will Gisela go to save the ones she loves? Sometimes sacrifices must be made.
PRAISE FOR THE CROWN OF BONES
"A little scary, a little sweet, a little despair, and a little hope all combine to spin a captivating tale. This isn't a book that you pick up, read a little, and put down for later. I fell into the "just another few pages or maybe a chapter then I'll go to bed" trap, and ended up staying awake until I finished it. Reader be warned - you'll fall in love with this book, and you shouldn't start it too close to bed time!"—The Faerie Review
"...would make the perfect Tim Burton movie. Twisted, creepy, and full of riveting characters, I loved this book."—Marilyn Barr, Author
Read the first chapter of The Crown of Bones
THIS DAY CALLS FOR A SACRIFICE, yet I have nothing to give. Other villagers leave flowers, coins, and food on an Altar for the goddess Bergot. She’s the mountain goddess who protects our valley from the horrors of the outside world and blesses our fertile lands, or some shit like that.
The mountain wind is strong, swirling flower petals and the stench of rotten food in the direction of my booth. With the Norstadt Square of Bergot Valley bustling more than usual, I must crane my neck and rise on tiptoe to spot my sister.
There. Thora twirls in my old blue skirt, dancing with little girls around the Maypole. She towers above them, but her playful spirit is the same. The children wrap pastel ribbons around the tall, white pole to the music of a lute and pipe. I keep an eye on Thora from the open market but remain vigilant enough to ward off any egg-thieves.
I don’t recall ever dancing around the Maypole myself. Even before Wilhelm’s death, I was here selling eggs and dairy at the morning market. After he was gone, I had to quit school to work at Schulze Manor during the day. I’m happy enough to watch Thora enjoying the festivities.
Another gust of wind pelts my face with a barrage of the perfumed petals, and I curse the ridiculous Hexennacht rituals. I busy myself rearranging baskets and milk bottles when a man clears his throat behind me.
“Blessed Day, Freckles.”
My heart skips at the sound of his voice. I pretend to be busy, waiting for my lungs to steady and cheeks to cool, before I turn to the man standing at my counter. Brahm Wolf. The sun glows on his light brown skin, and today he wears his twisted locks of hair gathered in a low ponytail.
“Two coins per dozen, one coin—”
“No good morning or Blessed Day?” Brahm clicks his tongue against his teeth. “What about a trade?” He flashes a bright smile and lifts a large fish wrapped in paper.
“Where’d you get that?”
“What if I told you I caught it myself?”
I wave him away. “You stole from Schulze Lake? Trying to pawn it off on me?”
“Gisela, I didn’t steal it!” He chuckles. “My friend, Hans, took me fishing this morning. His wife’s family owns Cauldron Lake on the other side of the valley near Sudstadt.”
Holding his strong chin high, Brahm drops the fish onto my counter with a thud and pats it. His rolled shirt sleeve is damp with a tiny spatter of blood, and he smells like fish.
“You’re a fisherman now? Is that why you aren’t performing in the square?” I bend to fiddle with cheesecloths and recount milk bottles. “Today’s lutist is awful.”
“Does that mean you like me?” He stands a little taller, drumming his thumbs on the wooden slab. “You noticed my absence?”
“Noticed? You play the lute in the square every…” I trail off to watch Thora.
An elderly lady gives handmade floral crowns to the young dancers. I hope she includes my sister. At fifteen, she looks much too old for one. The woman places one on Thora’s head, and my sister spins on the cobblestone with her arms spread wide. My body relaxes as a rare smile stretches my lips.
Brahm steps beside me, wrapping his arm around my shoulder, but I wriggle from the embrace.
“Apologies, Freckles. I just wanted to share the moment. Thora’s sweet like a strawberry.” With his hands up in surrender, Brahm shuffles backward from my booth and swings around the post, laughing. “You, on the other hand, are more like bitter wine. How’s sweet Thora?”
“You should be, too. For tomorrow’s the May Day Jubilee.”
I roll my eyes and return to counting inventory. The only good thing about tomorrow marking the thousandth May Day celebration is the fact that the square will be crowded with villagers.
Only a few more customers, then I’ll be able to take Thora home and get some cleaning done at Schulze Manor. A mother and child walk up to buy eggs and milk, but Brahm still lingers with his fish. I ignore his presence and take the woman’s coins, placing them in the leather purse belted around my waist.
The woman steps toward the Altar, which is a block of marble with a mountain carved into its face. She allows her toddler to sacrifice an egg. I rub my temples at the sight. How many more of my customers will waste my goods on a fairy tale goddess? As if she will help anyone tomorrow.
Lord Albert Schulze enters my peripheral vision. He slithers around the square, greeting the villagers with his feigned smiles and laughs. When Albert leans to whisper in Thora’s ear, I grit my teeth. Through the pastel ribbons drifting in the breeze, he raises his dark eyes to me. I snap my gaze to my only option: Brahm.
“So, what will you do with that fish?”
“I caught it for you, Gisela.” Brahm lifts his chin and raises an eyebrow. “You look absolutely lovely today. Is that a new green skirt? It matches your eyes.”
I huff at his compliment. There’s nothing special about my off-white blouse, canvas apron, and especially my green skirt. It’s the color of nearly ripe asparagus and the only fabric I could afford.
“What do you want for the fish?” I ask, placing my hand on my hip. “And how will I get it home?”
“I’ll carry it for you.”
“No. I’ll find room in my wagon. Now, what do you want for it? Milk, cheese, eggs? You could take the remainder of my eggs, and it wouldn't be of equal value.”
“For this.” He plucks a single egg from my basket.
“I know what you’re doing. I don’t take charity.” I gather cheese and goat’s milk. “Here, take these too.”
“Nope.” Brahm pockets the egg and winks. “It’ll be our contribution to the Altar.”
“You know I don’t believe in that nonsense,” I say as my eyes flit to the right. The food on the Altar will continue to spoil and assault my nose until the priestesses remove it. What a waste.
Although deep-down, I wish I could afford to give something.
Brahm leans low and touches my hand, so softly, it tickles. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, eight people our age will receive Black Letters tomorrow. It’s alright to be nervous. By the way,” he pauses to brush my hair with his fingers, “petals in your hair is a wonderful look on you.”
I bend to shake the flower petals from my waist-length curls. Redheads are rare, and everyone loves an excuse to touch my hair no matter how hard I try to remain in the shadows. I flip the length behind my shoulders and place my hands on my hips.
“Go on!” I shoo him away. “Take your egg to the Altar then.”
“Wait, I almost forgot.” He digs in his other pocket and presents an amethyst crystal. “I found this yesterday and thought of you.”
It gleams in the sunlight and is the perfect shade of pale purple. I dearly wish to take it from his palm but resist. “I don’t collect that stuff anymore.”
“Oh…alright.” He pockets the crystal and shrugs. “See you tonight for the Hexennacht bonfires?”
My cheeks burn, and I narrow my eyes but offer no response. Brahm gets the hint and strolls into the square with his head down. He places both the egg and the amethyst on the Altar before heading toward the Maypole celebration.
Tonight, the high priest and the priestesses of Bergot will hold a ceremony in the Sanctuary. The villagers will light bonfires to ward off evil spirits lurking in the mountains. They’ll drink beer and take bets on who will be tomorrow’s May Day Offerings—a grim game indeed. I’ve gone exactly once, and that’s all I’ll ever go.
This year marks the thousandth year since the inception of May Day Offerings, and the village elders are even considering it an honor to be chosen. At eighteen, I’m at risk of becoming an Offering, an honor I’d rather not receive. A Black Letter is nothing more than a death sentence.
Many villagers prefer to romanticize the Offerings’ journey, speculating where they go or what becomes of them. Happily ever after’s in a land far, far away. No. The only fact is that they don’t come back. I try not to think of what my family would do without me.
I help more customers and keep my eye on my sister. I can’t help but grin when Brahm takes Thora’s hands and dances with her. A slight ache blossoms inside my chest as well. Brahm used to dance with me. My sister’s face lights up, and she leans her blonde head back as he spins her around.
A baker buys my entire stock of eggs to make braided bread for May Day tomorrow, and I’m very close to selling out of milk and cheese when Lord Albert Schulze waltzes to my booth, wearing a crisp, white blouse. Albert’s dark hair is slicked back, and his onyx-brown eyes appear black against his pale skin. He happens to be the youngest lord in the valley. Unfortunately, I work in his manor, and Albert thinks he can act like a real pompous ass because his uncle’s the high priest.
“Blessed Day, Gi-sel-a.” He draws out my name and rests his elbows on the wooden counter of my booth.
“Blessed Day, my Lord,” I say, prepping a basket for him. “Milk or cheese?”
Albert grabs my wrist and gets in my face. “When will you stop this charade? Working all day for mere coins. Instead of cleaning my house, you could live in it. With me.” He brings my hand to his thin lips and kisses it, making my skin crawl. “How many times must I ask for your hand?”
I yank my arm back. “How many times must I say no?”
His dark eyes sear into mine as he clenches his jaw. “You’re acting ridiculous. I could provide for your entire family. For Thora.”
My stomach drops. I snap my gaze to my sister, still dancing with Brahm.
Albert places two fingers on my cheek and turns my face toward his. “You know, with her condition, she’ll never get married. Think it through, Miss Sauer.” He lets his fingertips glide across my lips. “You may be the loveliest creature in Bergot Valley, but you’ll never find another man to take both you and your sister in. Think. It. Through.”
He strides away, greeting villagers, merchants, and patrolmen. My breaths are short, but I bite my tongue to keep from crying. The thought of marrying a pig like Albert Schulze is enough to turn my stomach, but winters can be harsh. One wolf-attack on our chickens or goats could mean starvation for my family.
Fortunately, that won’t be today, since I’ve sold the remainder of goat’s milk and cheese. I pack my baskets and crates into the small wagon and wave Thora over. Brahm seems busy, surrounded by a gaggle of girls; his admirers are probably wondering why their favorite lutist was absent this morning.
Thora skips into the booth and throws her arms around my neck. “No, GiGi!”
“I know, I know.” I adjust her floral crown. “You look like a magic fairy! And did I see you dancing with Brahm?”
She giggles and brings her shaking hands to her pink cheeks, too excited to speak.
“He’s too old for you.” I laugh and point to the fish he left. “But look what he gave us! You and Mama will have so much fun cooking it today.”
Thora leans her thin body against mine, her excitement melting into exhaustion as she yawns. I plop her into the wagon and make her hold the fish. Through the crowded square, I sprint with the wagon along the bumpy cobblestone, making my sister giggle. We take a shortcut down a dim alleyway, which cuts north toward home. Sometimes Thora objects, but today she’s too concerned about holding her crown.
The shadows of the alley aid the mountain breeze in kissing my neck. The sunlight blanketing the tiny homes and shops beyond beckons me to hurry.
“Have you thought it through, Gi-sel-a?” Albert’s voice echoes in the alley from behind, freezing me in place.