This week is Thanksgiving in the US, and it kicks off the holiday season, so I wanted to give you all a gift as thanks for your support throughout the year. And since stories are what I do, your gift is a short story that grew into a short novella instead. 💕
I didn’t plan to write another Books & Broadswords story, but a throwaway line in the first story spawned this idea, and it wouldn’t leave me alone, so here we are, and I hope you enjoy it. :)
This story is twice as long as B&B, about 18k words, and rather than posting the short chapters more often, I’m planning to post slightly longer chunks once a week. Happy reading!
Wading through shin-deep snow all morning had given me plenty of time to reconsider the wisdom of plans conceived in the dark, desperate hours before dawn. But I was desperate, so I trudged onward. This would work.
It had to work.
I was wearing two pairs of socks and fur-lined boots, but my toes were starting to go numb by the time the remote manor emerged from the trees. It was hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the dark stone facade felt unwelcoming in a way that made my instincts prickle. Only the brave—or foolish—would approach such a place.
Unfortunately for me, I was both.
I hitched my pack higher on my back and made my way to the entrance. A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold worked its way down my spine, but I hadn’t come this far to turn back now.
My mitten-covered fist barely made a sound on the heavy door, so it didn’t surprise me when no one answered. I knocked again, and again, and then I tried the handle.
The door opened.
“Hello!” I called through the crack. “Is anyone home? I’ve come to barter!”
Resounding silence answered me. I pushed the door open wider and tried again. “I’m just going to wait inside, if that’s okay with you.”
I stomped the snow from my boots and eased through the doorway. It felt wrong to enter someone’s house without an invitation, but for all the place appeared abandoned, it was warm.
The door closed behind me with an ominous thud. I immediately tried the handle again and the door opened. I was not trapped. I let out a slow breath and tried to get my pulse to settle.
“What are you doing in my house?” a deep voice demanded from directly behind me.
I screeched as my heart leapt from my body. I twisted so quickly my pack overbalanced me, and I ended up on the floor, staring up at the most striking man I’d ever seen.
Tall and blond, he would’ve been handsome if his frosty stare hadn’t been exactly as unwelcoming as the manor’s facade. I huffed at him and climbed to my feet with as much dignity as I could muster—which wasn’t much.
“I’m here to barter,” I repeated, unsure if he’d heard my initial shout.
“How did you find this place?”
“I followed the path.”
At this, he frowned. “From the village?”
“Yes?” I hadn’t meant to make it a question, but where else would I be coming from? “I’ve brought rocks to trade.”
One pale eyebrow rose over his icy blue eyes. “Rocks?”
“Yes. I’ve heard you will trade for interesting rocks. I have a collection I’ve been gathering for years.”
His expression gave nothing away. “From whom have you heard such?”
“You know… people,” I hedged with a breezy wave. In point of fact, I’d heard a sketchy rumor several years ago, then the person I’d heard it from had disappeared without a trace, hopefully to their new life of fortune and not into a shallow grave.
I had a sword and the skill to wield it, so I wasn’t too concerned. Though, looking at the man before me, perhaps I should’ve been. He was unarmed, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous. He was lean and muscular, and if he caught me, he’d easily overpower me.
“Show me what you brought,” he said at last.
Relief nearly buckled my knees. I looked around the empty entryway. It was nice and warm, but there wasn’t a single table to be found. “Don’t you want to move to a sitting room or study or whatever kind of room a fancy house like this has? Preferably one with a table?”
He gave me a long-suffering sigh, but he turned and started down the hall. “Follow me.”
The blond man led me deeper into the building. The hallway was as warm as the entryway but just as dusty. Cobwebs clung to the corners of the ceiling. Someone had made a half-hearted attempt to clean the floor, then tracked muddy footprints in.
My fingers itched with the need to set it to rights, but I curled them into fists. I wasn’t here to work.
“I’m Zenira,” I said as a distraction.
The man continued walking in silence, as if he hadn’t heard me, but I wasn’t so easily dissuaded. “And you are?”
He slanted a dark glance at me over his shoulder. “Busy.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Am I keeping you from your important work of lording over the local peasants? Because I’m certainly not keeping you from cleaning.”
He stopped and turned all the way around, a dangerous look on his face. “What did you say?”
I gestured at the fancy house surrounding us. “You are the lord of this county, aren’t you? If so, you’re doing a poor job—on multiple fronts, it seems.” I squinted at him, reconsidering. “Or are you a smuggler?”
“I am neither, which you should be grateful for, assuming you actually planned to leave here alive.” His eyes flicked down to the rapier hanging at my side. “Can you use that?”
Fear finally caught up to me, and I swallowed. “Yes. Am I going to need to?”
Rather than answering, he turned and opened the nearby door. “Your table, as requested.”
He’d brought me to the dining room. A table big enough to seat ten filled the room, and its polished surface gleamed in the lamplight. Finally, one thing in this house was clean.
I shrugged off my pack, then reconsidered my plan to put it on the table. Who knew what the grouchy man looming behind me would do if I put so much as a single scratch on his fancy tabletop. Better to be safe.
As I set the pack on the floor, my stomach growled. I ignored it, but the man sighed. “Wait here. Do not leave this room until I return. Do you understand?”
Embarrassment heated my cheeks. “You don’t have—”
The door clicked closed behind him. He moved far too quietly for such a tall man. Smuggler was starting to look more and more likely.
I draped my cloak over one end of the table, then laid out the rocks I’d brought. This was my entire collection, gathered over the course of my thirty-one years. Most of the early rocks were hardly worth mention, except for sentimental value, but I’d brought everything, hopeful that something in the hoard would catch his eye.
My stomach growled again, upset about the lack of lunch. I had a muffin in my pack, but I hadn’t wanted to remove a mitten to eat it, so I’d ignored the hungry grumbles.
Once I’d arranged the rocks into neat rows, I hovered awkwardly next to the table. I didn’t dare sit on any of the delicately carved chairs. They looked like they’d collapse in a brisk breeze, and I couldn’t afford to replace one.
The man returned a few minutes later, carrying a tray topped with a steaming bowl. He set the tray on the end of the table not covered by my cloak, and I tried not to look too hopeful. Perhaps he’d just gotten hungry and now expected me to watch him eat.
I dragged my eyes away from the bowl and ordered my stomach not to embarrass me further.
“Sit,” the man said, pointing at the chair next to the tray. “I will examine your rocks while you eat.”
I eyed him warily. “What will the meal cost me?”
His spine stiffened, and the dangerous look returned. “You are a guest in my house, however unwanted. Do not insult my hospitality by presuming that I would demand payment for food.”
“I meant no insult, but I’ve learned it’s best to be clear.” Especially with people in positions of power.
“Eat, Zenira. The meal is freely given, and I expect nothing in return.”
I rounded the table and pulled out the chair, surprised that it was sturdier than it appeared. Still, I perched on the edge, unwilling to risk damaging it or staining the upholstered cushion.
The bowl was filled with a thick potato soup that smelled absolutely divine. I’d burned a lot of energy traipsing through the snow, and the soup was warm and filling.
While I ate, the man examined every rock I’d brought with a thoroughness that told me he either knew a lot about rocks or nothing at all.
Or he was stalling for time.
The last was proved true when I carefully set my spoon next to the empty bowl, and he immediately said, “I will pay you ten silver for the lot.”
“You want them all?” I asked, sure I’d heard incorrectly. I’d expected him to choose two or three of the best rocks, not all of them. Most of the rocks were far more sentimental that valuable, and parting with them would wound.
When his chin dipped in agreement, I swallowed. I needed the money, and they were only rocks. There were a thousand more just outside the door. But those weren’t mine.
“Can I keep a few?” I whispered.
“The offer is for the whole lot. Take it or leave it.”
I clenched my fingers together. Years of my life, gone in a heartbeat. But ten silver was more than I could make in three months, and it would be enough to keep me housed this winter.
The local landowner had unexpectedly passed away two months ago, and now the distant relation who had inherited wanted to evict me and rent the house to a tenant who would bring in more money. I’d had a perpetual rental agreement that locked in my rent, but it wasn’t in writing, so the new landowner refused to honor it.
He’d set the rent to what a tenant farmer with a successful harvest would pay. He knew I couldn’t afford it, and he didn’t care in the slightest.
Most of my neighbors were in similar straits, and everyone was scrambling to scrounge up enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Jobs were thin on the ground.
I touched the sparkly rock I’d picked up while on a walk with my mom. I’d been so sure that it was filled with gold or treasure, but it was just bits of quartz. Pretty, but worthless.
I refused to make the obvious comparison. I was not worthless, no matter what the landowner or the king and his knights thought.
I blinked back tears and nodded at the nameless man. “Ten silver. I agree.”
The soft clink of coins on the table very nearly broke me, but I straightened my spine. This was why I’d come. I should be grateful that anyone even wanted rocks.
Life had stolen most of the other reminders of my mother, so why not this one, too? At least I’d gotten a meal out of it, and my toes were starting to thaw. My trip back would be faster without the extra weight in my pack, so I’d make it well before sunset.
It was fine. Everything was fine. The part of me that felt like it was laid bare and dying would just have to get over it. If I didn’t have money for shelter this winter, then I would literally die.
The man gestured at the ten silver coins, neatly laid out for easy counting. I only hesitated for a moment before swiping them off the table with a nod. I partially unlaced my boot so I could get to the hidden pocket I’d added inside, and my toes throbbed.
Maybe not thawed after all.
I secured the silver then laced the boot tight. By the time I was done, my rocks had disappeared. It felt like a dagger to the gut, but I kept the tears locked behind iron will.
My pack was featherlight as I swung it over my shoulder. The damp cloak went on next, and then I had no more reason to linger in the warmth. I dipped my head at the man who had given me another few months to live.
Maybe it would be enough.
The manor door closed behind me with quiet finality. The wind sliced through my cloak with bitter teeth, but I couldn’t afford a heavier one, even with the silver in my boot.
I followed my own footprints back toward the village. With every step, it was a struggle not to turn back. Leaving my rocks behind was difficult enough, but leaving the manor in such a sorry state went against my every instinct. Only the thought of the unnamed man’s frosty expression kept me on the path.
My cottage was cold and dark by the time I made it home, and my fingers and toes were icy. I built a small fire in the stove with the last of my coal. Tomorrow, I would need to buy more.
This morning’s gruel had congealed into a solid brick, but I put the pan on the stove and added a little water. I could go to the tavern for dinner, but I needed every piece silver in my boot just to cover rent, and my savings was already depleted. I couldn’t afford a solicitor to fight the landowner, so I’d be forced to move in the spring, which meant economizing everywhere I could.
I ate huddled in a blanket next to the stove. But for all my cottage was bare, it was clean. The manor’s state lingered in the back of my mind, like a partially remembered thought or a half-finished job.
And no matter how many times I reminded myself that it wasn’t my problem, I couldn’t quite escape the desire to set it to rights.
I awoke the next morning tired and grumpy. I hadn’t slept well at all, and something must be done about the manor’s state, frostiness be damned. I shoved a week’s worth of clothes into my pack and doubled up my socks for another long trudge through the snow.
First, I stopped at the landowner’s secretary’s office and paid my rent. The man accepted the payment with a pained grimace. He, too, lived in the village and had no doubt gotten an earful from all of his neighbors, but it wasn’t his fault his new boss was a such an ass.
I sighed in resigned relief as I stepped outside. Now I had three months of breathing room to find a new place to live.
And a potential job just waiting for me to grab it.
The trip through the snowy forest wasn’t any more pleasant, but as the manor finally came into view, I felt lighter. I pounded a fist on the door and waited.
I knocked again, and when that didn’t result in the door opening, I tried the latch. It was unlocked, so I let myself in with a shrug. If the owner didn’t want me inside, he should’ve locked his door after yesterday.
“Hello!” I called as the door closed behind me.
The man appeared at the top of the stairs, frosty glare firmly in place. “You again.”
It wasn’t exactly the most welcoming of greetings, but I forged ahead anyway. “Me again,” I confirmed. “I’m here for a job.”
“I don’t recall posting any jobs.”
“You need someone to clean your house, and I need money. Hire me as a maid for a week, and I’ll make the floors gleam. I’ll clean the entire house for twelve silver plus room and board.”
His eyebrows rose. “Most maids make a single silver in a week, if that.”
“I’m not most maids. If you’d like to hire a dozen others to do the work, you can. But someone needs to clean this house because it’s a disgrace.”
He descended the steps in silence, and I wondered if I was about to be tossed out into the snow. He stopped close enough that it would be difficult for me to draw my sword and took a deep breath.
Something like surprise crossed his face before he smoothed it away. “Very well. One week, twelve silver. But if you don’t finish the entire house, I won’t pay you the full amount.”
“That’s fine,” I agreed before he could change his mind—or think to negotiate. “If you’ll point the way to the staff quarters, I’ll change and get started. How would you prefer to be addressed?”
“Very well, Lord Baldric, thank you for this opportunity.” I dropped into a passable curtsy.
“I’m not a lord,” he said. Before I could correct myself, he asked, “Have you eaten lunch?”
My stomach remained blissfully silent. “Not yet.”
He pointed up the stairs. “Choose any room on the second floor except the one at the end of the hall, then meet me in the kitchen.”
I curtsied again, but Baldric was already turning away. I climbed the stairs to the second floor. It was only marginally cleaner than the floor below. The thick carpet runners in the hallway desperately needed a good beating as well as a snow scrub. Luckily, we were in the season for it.
I wanted to stay as far as possible from the double doors at the end of the hall, so I opened the first door I came to. My breath caught. The bedroom walls were coated in pale peach plaster, and the delicate furniture was painted a complementary light green. The whole room reminded me of spring, and I couldn’t believe Baldric was going to allow me to stay here for a week.
A fine layer of dust coated everything, so I set my pack on the floor and carefully changed into a gray working dress, white apron, and sturdy slippers. The rugs would have to wait until my toes thawed once more.
I tied my straight brown hair back with a white kerchief, then peered at myself in the dusty vanity mirror. I looked respectable enough now, but I would be coated in grime by the time I finished for the day.
I returned to the ground floor while mentally compiling a task list. I’d need to see the other levels before beginning, but if they were anything like what I’d already seen, I’d have my work cut out for me.
At least while Baldric was awake. Once he was safely abed, I could work faster.
I pushed the door open into a surprisingly clean kitchen filled with the delicious aroma of chicken soup. Baldric sat at the end of the battered table with a steaming bowl in front of him. He’d placed another bowl—presumably for me—on his left, where my back would be to the wall.
I’d left my sword behind, but I had a small knife hidden in my apron’s front pocket. I circled the far end of the table, then pulled out the stool and sat. “Is the cook not joining us?”
“I don’t have a cook,” he said.
No maids, no cook. In fact, as far as I could tell, he didn’t have any household staff at all. What kind of person was wealthy enough to have this fancy house and spend silver on rocks, but didn’t have staff?
Someone who didn’t want anyone poking into his business, most likely.
I shook my head. It wasn’t my concern. Once the house was clean, I’d be on my way. I pulled my bowl toward me. It was filled with a hearty chicken and noodle soup that had actual chunks of chicken in it. He’d also given me a cup of clear, cold water, along with a cup of tea.
“Thank you for the food,” I murmured.
His eyebrows rose slightly. “If you’re planning to clean this entire house in a week, you’ll more than earn it.”
I nodded in agreement. It was clear that he didn’t expect me to finish the whole house, but if he kept feeding me like this, I might get done early.
We ate in silence. It wasn’t entirely comfortable, but it also wasn’t as awkward as I’d expected. I finished the last of my soup, then drained the final drops of tea from my cup.
“There’s more.” Baldric tipped his head toward the pot on the stove.
“I’ve had plenty, thank you. Leave your dishes in the sink I will do them later. I’m going to start with the upper levels.”
His pale blue eyes caught mine. “Locked doors are off limits. I will not count them against you.” His expression tightened. “If you attempt to bypass the locks, I will kick you out with nothing.”
I smiled at him. “I understand. And I won’t complain about less to clean.”