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Starling and Hatter: Chapter One

It’s just over two weeks until the release of The Starling and the Hatter! So in the hopes of making you as excited about its release as I am, here’s chapter one!



I rifled through the contents of the wagon, stuffing fistfuls of my belongings into my satchel. The voices yelling back and forth outside were a mercy. I didn’t have to sneak and be quiet, I could just be fast. Speed was what I needed most if I were going to escape my brothers.

At first I only grabbed my belongings. Clothing, shoes, a hairbrush, a bundle of dried meat and nuts, a water pouch, and a thin bedroll. Then the jangle of a purse caught my attention. Money. Of course I had to take money with me. I grabbed the purse and took a few precious seconds to look for more. Leaving my brothers was my first priority, but money would get me much farther. I found another handful of coins and a gold brooch. They’d be furious to find me gone, and even more furious when they realized I’d taken any coins, but I didn’t feel guilty. I’d earned this money. As one of the three infamous Wolfe siblings, I’d performed and bewitched and collected coins from audiences that were always dazzled by the act we put on. Our unique wagon had been built to resemble a great beast or wolf, and I always played the damsel in distress in our dramatic act. It was a performance we’d worked hard to hone and improve, and the audience loved it. 

I was done being the damsel in distress. 

Looking around the dark wagon interior one more time, I wrapped my cloak around me and threw the satchel across my back. I’d lived my life in this wagon, curled up in my corner. I’d done everything I was told in exchange for the assurance that my brothers would take care of me. But today, they had been the ones to injure me. They’d been the ones to throw me in the hold beneath the wagon as punishment for daring to stand up for someone. The only reason I was free now was due to the kindness of a complete stranger.

I owed my brothers nothing but contempt, and I refused to live under the combined misery of their violent hands and oppressive heels any longer.

So I slipped out the door and down the two small steps at the back of the wagon, grateful that the strangers who had pulled me from the hold still had my brothers restrained and distracted.

I jumped to the ground and ran into the woods, thankful for the dark night that hid me. The village of Murrwood was just north of here, which meant I would have to skirt the peddlers’ camp in order to go there. I didn’t expect anyone would notice my departure. They were all captivated by the spectacle of my brothers arguing with those they had wronged. So I hurried through the trees, anxious to put as much space between me and my brothers as possible.


I spun to see who had called out to me, smothering a scream and clutching at my heart as I searched the darkness. I quickly spotted someone hurrying toward me, but his lanky figure calmed my frayed nerves. It was only Robert.

“Where are you going?” he asked as he came to an abrupt stop in front of me.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just have to go.”


“I can’t stay with them anymore.” My voice shook. This was the bravest thing I’d ever done. It was probably also the most foolish.

“But where will you go?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Anywhere away from them.”

His face was pulled down in worry and confusion. “How will you live? How will you eat?”

Robert White and I had known each other for years. At fifteen, he was only a year older than I was. We traveled with the same crowd and worked the same festivals much of the time. This was the only world either of us knew, so his worry was not unfounded. Traveling alone wasn’t smart, but it was my only choice.

“I took some money,” I said, trying to sound optimistic. “And I know how to work a crowd.”

“Yes, but without the wolf wagon…” There was skepticism in the twist of his mouth and the crater of his brow.

“I’ll be all right. It will be an adventure.” My confidence sounded false, and I closed my eyes on a sigh. “It will be hard. I’m not a fool; I know it will be hard, but I have to go. I have to try.”

He still looked concerned. “Well…” He looked about, as if lost for words, his eyes going to the ground and then me and then his hands. “Here!” he said suddenly, tugging on the gloves he wore. “It will be cold at night. Maybe these will help.” He held them out to me, his face earnest. 

I swallowed down the lump that clogged my throat at the thoughtful gift, reaching out tentatively to take them from his hands. “Thank you, Robert,” I whispered. 

He nodded, giving me an almost-smile. “Stay safe.”

I backed up a few steps. “Don’t tell them you saw me.” Though I didn’t think Robert would ever betray me, I thought it better to state the obvious.

“I won’t,” he promised.

I gave him as much of a smile as I could muster and then fled through the trees.

I ran from my brothers, from the family that was supposed to love me but who’d misused me instead. I ran toward the wide-open, cruel world, the world they had told me would chew me up, abuse me, starve me, and leave me for dead. I went into the world fully expecting that my days would be filled with darkness, pain and hunger. 

But I wanted more, and I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could have it. Because the girl who had helped me escape was just like me—and yet so very different. I lay awake that night and wondered why someone who was seemingly just as insignificant as I was could have so many people willing to come to her aid. When my brothers took her, she hadn’t been forgotten. The people she knew hadn’t shrugged off her disappearance the way my brothers had shrugged off my mother’s. This girl’s friends had searched for her, fought for her.

Lying all alone with nothing but the stars and rustling leaves for company was so much lonelier when I considered that there could be more. Lonely…but strangely hopeful. I had a plan, and perhaps it was pure naiveté, but I had hope that somewhere in this upside-down world, I would find a life better than the one my brothers had given me.

Whether I found that better life or not, first I had to meet the cruel world head on.


Traveling on my own was arduous and frightening, but I pressed on in the direction of the village of Dressle. My brothers and I had already been to the festivals in Caldo and Norsing, and they would no doubt continue to follow our usual route south to Tethurn, so I was going north to Dressle. It was fortunate that I’d separated from them in Murrwood. The village of Murrwood was almost exactly in the middle of Winberg and thus was visited by festival rats who traveled both of the main routes. One occupied the northern half of Winberg, the other traveled through the south, and only in Murrwood did they overlap. The next southern festival, in Tethurn, didn’t start for another three days, so most of the travelers going that way had chosen to stay camped in Murrwood Forest for the past week. The travelers making their way through the northern half of Winberg had left for Dressle several days or even a week ago. I wouldn’t make it there before the festival started, but at least it was a known route, and I was hopeful that I would only miss a day or two. 

It wasn’t an easy journey, and it would have made more sense for a lone girl on foot to go to Duskmoor, which was closer and the terrain less mountainous. But if my escape was ever going to work, I couldn’t just go to the closest village. Duskmoor’s festival had occurred several weeks ago, so I wouldn’t find work there. In order to find work and safety, I had to go further, up into the heart of the mountains. My brothers wouldn’t think me capable of such a thing; they would assume I’d take the easy way, and I was counting on them underestimating me. I was also counting on their unwillingness to take our giant wagon up into the mountains. That’s why they had always stayed south—easier roads to prowl with the wolf wagon.

As I journeyed, I kept the stories my mother had told me close at hand, trying to draw on their strength and imagine that I too could live a story worthy of telling—or at least one that didn’t end abruptly in tragedy. The tale my mother had recited most often was that of the mother of wolves. It was no mystery why that was a favorite. She and I were Wolfe women, after all. But I took comfort in the story of that old woman—the hag who had lived life, conquered it even. With all the experience and wisdom she had gathered, that old mother of wolves had the gift of life. She could gather the lifeless bones from the desolate ground and sing them back to life. She could put even the most broken of men back together. She was a fairy godmother of sorts, and seeing as how I was a Wolfe and she the wolf mother…I liked to think that she looked after me. 

My mother had always told the story a little differently, so I never quite knew if the mother of wolves lived in the dark woods or in the sandy desert. Was she woman or wolf or both? Was she ninety-nine years old, or was she a thousand? Dripping in colorful beads or dressed in rags? The story was always different, but no matter the details, I knew that the wolf mother sang.

Perhaps that was why I wanted to try my hand at being a songstress. That and the simple practicality of performing by myself. There were a good number of solo performers at the fairs, but most were men. Magicians, jesters, stilt walkers, jugglers. Of course, there was the occasional woman who occupied such roles, but I didn’t have those skills.

I could sing though. I’d been singing to myself for as long as I could remember, and enough people had commented on the clarity and ease of my voice that I had some confidence in it. It was a skill I possessed, and an honest one too. Still, I’d never used my voice to attract an audience, so I would need all the practice I could get. 

As I traveled, I kept an eye out for fellow travelers. If they allowed it, I would sing a little song while sitting around their fire and I would watch their reactions. Which songs captivated? Which notes regained their attention?

My first two evenings on the road, I encountered small groups in the evenings who had welcomed me, and one was even willing to share their meager meal. 

On the third night, I made the mistake of accepting a drink.

I came upon them at dusk. The group consisted of four men and two women. I called out a greeting and one of the women came to meet me. “Are you on your own?” she asked.

“For now” was my vague answer since I did not want to confess just how alone I was. 

“Well, come sit down. We’ve got room enough around the fire.”

They were a congenial group, sharing stories and even encouraging me to sing for them. As the evening grew darker, they passed around flasks of mead and the laughter increased. When a man put a flask in my hand and said, “Drink up!” I saw no harm in it.

The liquid hit my tongue and I didn’t know what it was, but it was not mead. After only a few swallows, I gave it back, grimacing at the odd aftertaste and becoming paranoid as I felt its effects almost instantly. I clutched at the log beneath me as I felt off-balance and my head tilted to one side. I sat there for several moments, trying to breathe away the odd feeling, but it didn’t subside. I tried to get up, gripped by the sudden urge to run.

A hand pulled me down and pushed another flask to my lips once more. “Drink this,” he said. “It will help.” 

In my confusion, I swallowed, thinking perhaps this was water or something else to counteract what I’d drunk before, but it was only more of the same. I pushed away from it and fell backward off of the log where I’d been perched. I tried to climb to my feet, but whatever herbs or magic the flask contained made me feel small and unsteady, like I was shrinking into the ground and I had no control over my limbs. When a man tried to help me to my feet, the feeling of smallness increased as his laughter rang in my ears and panic bloomed in my gut. My dizziness intensified, and I worried that my consciousness was on the verge of blinking out when a woman’s indignant cry broke through my fear. I was jostled and pulled by multiple sets of hands, heightening my panic. 

Then only one set of hands held me, and they were smaller than they’d been before. It was no longer a man guiding my movements, but a woman. My mind couldn’t quite decipher what that meant, but I knew it was better. She muttered as she guided me along, the meaning of her words never registering fully in my hazy mind, but the anger and indignation were clear. I stumbled beside her, grateful that the laughter was fading behind us. Then everything faded.

I awoke the next morning when someone shook my shoulder. My head hurt, but my eyes were eventually able to focus on the harsh face of the woman crouched over me.

I swallowed hard.

“You’d best steer clear of other travelers if you aren’t going to keep your wits about you,” she said with a scowl.

Pain, fear and confusion warred within me. “What happened?”

“Nothing, but only because I was there. You understand?” She gave me a look of pity, reprimand, and warning.

I swallowed again, my throat aching. I nodded even though I wasn’t sure I fully understood. Maybe I didn’t want to understand.

The woman stood, offering me a hand. I took it as I tried to imagine just how much assistance this woman had given me. She pulled me to my feet, then bent to pick up my cloak before putting it in my hand. “Off with you,” she said, handing me my pack, which I could only hope contained everything I’d brought with me. Then she jerked her chin toward the dim woods. “Go before any of them wake.”

I gave a sharp nod and started walking, astonished that I could be made to feel so small. I put my pack on my back, then threw my cloak around my shoulders to cover it and myself, glancing back only once. The woman stood watching me, but the five other figures were just shapeless mounds around the fire pit that sat cold in the early dawn light. I turned away, continuing on with shaking legs and a pit in my stomach.

I found the stream nearby and drank deeply, knowing that I wanted to flush out any of the sorcery that they’d put in that flask. I drank and splashed water on my face, all the while crying into the stream, adding to its depths. My stomach was unsettled and empty, but I dared not eat any of the meager food in my pack when I didn’t know from where my next meal would come. Pulling my pack from my back, I dug inside, grateful when I found the pouch of money and the brooch safely tucked where I’d put them. I’d been lucky. Perhaps that woman had been a wolf mother, there to protect a girl in need. I closed the bag and tried to breathe the tears away.

I needed to make it to Dressle. I needed to be among the festival crowd where I was comfortable and I’d be able to barter and sing for coins and hopefully feed myself. 

Saints, what if I’d escaped my brothers only to starve in my first attempt at independence?

I banished the thought, refusing to let such dark possibilities consume me. Forward was the only way to go. So I pushed myself to my feet and followed along the stream as my tears dried on my cheeks.

It wasn’t until the next day that I thought to sit down and count the money in my pouch. I poured the contents into my palm and all the air rushed out of my lungs. I pushed the coins around in my hand, realizing there was only half of what I’d originally taken from my brothers. I swallowed hard and willed the tears away. The conniving men who had given me the strange brew had also lightened my purse. 

It took time for the panic to subside, and even longer to recognize how lucky I was that they’d only taken half. And why half? So I wouldn’t notice at first? Because they were following their own moral code? 

I didn’t know, and I never took a drink from a stranger again.

Published inStarling and HatterTales of Winberg

One Comment

  1. Karen Karen

    I love this beginning! When Elise escaped her brothers at the end of Cloaked in Scarlet I felt like I needed to know her story and where she was going! So thank you! Can’t wait to read all the book!

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