With less than two weeks before The Damsel Gauntlet launches on Amazon, I thought I’d share the first chapter for those who haven’t seen it. Of course, this came as a bonus chapter in episode 0.5, Troll Hunter: Witch for Hire, and if you haven’t checked that out, you can pick it up FREE when you sign up to the newsletter here.
This witch needs more than a wicked sense of humor to be the hero in a quirky quest she never saw coming.
It was an ordinary afternoon at The Salt and Bog until the city guards turned up. While sipping ale among outcasts and misfits, Gretchen gets called on for an audience with the King… whether she wants one or not. Hauled back to the palace in secrecy, this ‘witch for hire’ gets an offer too good to refuse. But when she’s locked in a dungeon with bickering goblins and a smug dragon, the proposition looks shady.
A damsel is in distress. A prince is on his way. All is not as it seems.
Living from hand to mouth, Gretchen pushes aside her reservations to keep her eyes on the prize; the King’s coin. To earn it, will she be willing to take the dragon by the horns? When a ‘happily ever after’ is at stake, she must paint a heroic picture for those who are watching.
Because when this fairy tale goes down in the history books, the people behind the scenes fade into obscurity… which is exactly how Gretchen wants it.
Gretchen stumbled into The Salt and Bog plucking leaves from her braid while mumbling under her breath. When she turned her attention to the crowd, her eyes widened at the regulars who’d turned to smirk at her.
“Broom problems?” Jurgen snickered from behind the bar as he poured ale from a barrel.
Gretchen clicked her teeth shut and cleared her throat. “Need to get that darn thing back to the shop. Can’t get good service these days. And I’ll hear no guff from you lot, or I swear I’ll curse your trousers to itch for months.”
The crowd broke out in laughter, only too aware of Gretchen’s lack of prowess in the curse department. She spotted Nora sitting at their usual table. Heaving a deep breath, she trod over and sank to the stool beside her.
“Tough day?” Nora had the decency to hide her smirk behind her hand, and Gretchen closed her eyes with a sigh.
“That alchemist stiffed me on most of the supplies I ordered, a customer changed her mind on the vermin poison, and Mulligan got into the pickled livers again.” She curled her lip. “Filthy feline has been farting all afternoon.”
Nora let out an almighty cackle as Jurgen ambled over with a mug. Gretchen narrowed her eyes. “How’s the itch?”
Coming up with the right potion to treat a troll for eczema had been tedious. He reached for his neck, and Gretchen snatched her mug before he riddled it with whatever was crawling around under his plush fur.
“Better, but still a pain in my rear end.” He groaned as he scratched.
“Well, it might help some if you had a bath once in a while. The soap I made is part of the treatment.” Gretchen took a sip and arched her eyebrow.
“Doesn’t bother me that much.” Jurgen turned before Gretchen could reply.
“There’s just no appreciation, is there?” Nora waved her mug in the air. “Slaving away over a cauldron all day, and people can’t even follow simple directions.”
It was easy for her to say. At least she was on a retainer with a wealthy baron, which meant she spent most of her afternoons languishing away in a dump like the Salt and Bog. There were only so many hexes the Baron could dream up in one day.
“I’m not in a position to turn down paying customers. No matter how unappreciative.” Gretchen’s shoulders slumped, and she smacked her lips.
“This is what comes of free trade, you know? All of us undercutting each other and living in squalor because of it. If we could just organize…”
Gretchen rubbed her forehead and zoned out. It usually took longer for Nora to get on her soapbox about that kind of thing, and once she started, there was no stopping her. Seeking distraction, she surveyed the room’s inhabitants.
The Salt and Bog was known as the hangout for society’s undesirables. The ones normal folks had a use for but wouldn’t be seen in public with. A ghostly crew was in their normal spot emphasizing their points with ethereal mugs, and a merry band of gnomes looked like they’d knocked off early from the mines. The pungent smell of ogres flavored the air, but they were mostly harmless unless they got into the brandy.
“…and that’s the point, really. Without us, they’d be lancing their own boils and—”
Gretchen frowned and followed Nora’s gaze to the door. A squad of guardsmen sauntered in looking down their noses. The guy with the feathers in his helmet puffed himself up and cleared his throat.
“We’re looking for the witch who calls herself Gretchen.”
Gretchen sat a little straighter as the crowd turned to her. Swallowing, she stood, her mug still in hand.
“Listen, if this is about that alchemist, I can assure you—”
“You are Gretchen, from the classified?”
Gretchen blinked. A guard handed a newspaper to the guy in front and he cleared his throat again.
“Services for hire, Gretchen the Witch. I can be anything you want me to be, your greatest desires—”
“Whoa there, buddy. Listen, I was having a hard month and bills need to be paid—”
“The King requires your services.”
The tavern went dead quiet and Gretchen’s cheeks burned red.
“Well, I mean, I’m a royalist as much as the next person. But truth be told, I’d had a few too many witches’ brews that night and got a little carried away…”
It was all too much for the patrons whose smothered snickers turned into giggles.
The guard sighed. “It is not a request. You can either come with us or we can cuff you and tie you to a horse.”
Gretchen glanced at Nora to implore for help but found her gawking with glazed eyes at the guys with spears.
“I see. Well, I hope he doesn’t expect a freebie.” Gretchen thumped her mug on the table and glared at the entranced audience as she followed the guards to the cobbled street. She wasn’t sure what was more humiliating. That her barfly buddies found out about that, or that the guards knew that the less-than-savory tavern was the best place to find her.
“Will you be flying?” The guard nodded to the broom rack where her sorry excuse for a vehicle still had a tree branch tangled around it. Gretchen considered taking Nora’s but decided against it. She’d never hear the end of it if she crash landed and broke something. It wasn’t like anyone would take her broom, the darn thing was a health hazard.
“I’ll roll with you fellas, if you don’t mind.” Gretchen straightened her hat and picked out another leaf.
The guard shrugged and mounted holding out a hand to help her up. Gretchen clambered on the beast who snorted at her clumsy horsemanship.
“So, the King, huh? Over at the palace, or maybe a quiet little hunting lodge in the mountains? They say the Queen can have a wicked temper—”
“The Queen insisted.” The guard frowned over his shoulder. “She said there’s no better way to be sure he’s worthy.”
Gretchen frowned and scratched her head. Whatever games the King and Queen played amongst themselves was none of her concern. If it meant a healthy dose of the King’s coin, she would leave her dignity at the door. It didn’t sound like the guard was up for a discussion on the merits of the situation, and she wasn’t about to ask him for pointers. She did her best to hold steady atop the beast and stared at the scenery passing by.
The cobbled road led steadily toward the city proper where buildings crowded around the stone wall of the palace. Her eyes drifted toward the mountains in the background, where the outlines of towers stood sentinel against the setting sun. With peace throughout the countryside, the amount of industry in the past few years was mind boggling. She preferred the peace and quiet of her ramshackle cottage nestled off the beaten track.
Gretchen snapped out of her reverie hours later when the guard gave her a sharp nudge with his elbow. They were in the castle courtyard, surrounded by the comings and goings of servants in livery, and Gretchen slid from the horse with barely a stumble.
“Through the servant’s entrance.” He thrust his chin toward a small door away from the main gate.
Gretchen tapped her nose and winked. “You can count on me to be discreet.”
The guard rolled his eyes and led his horse toward the stables. Gretchen hitched up her knitted hose and marched to the door, where a footman lingered on the step.
“The witch, I presume?” He eyed her askance.
“Gretchen at your service.” She proffered a hand, and he cleared his throat.
“Come along, best get you out of the way before the dinner service finishes.”
Gretchen followed him along narrow corridors and sidled past maids hauling sheets and buckets of water. The footman kept up a fast pace, and Gretchen kept her mouth shut. When he opened the next door, the hallway became wider with plush carpets underfoot. She gawked at paintings and rich textiles on the walls and bumped into her guide who’d stopped in front of a lacquered oak doorway.
“The King will come directly after his meal. This is his private reception quarters as I’m sure you’ll understand.” He waved her in and ushered her toward a pair of velvet sofas. “Now, I don’t have time to watch over you, but know this. We keep meticulous records of the valuables in the castle. If anything were to go missing, we know where to find you.”
Gretchen dropped onto the sofa with a sigh. “Gotcha. You’ll find the place just as you left it. More or less.”
The footman curled his lip before flouncing out and closing the door behind him. Gretchen wriggled further into the soft cushions and leaned her head back relishing the comfort after spending hours bouncing up and down on a horse’s rump. After a few minutes, her thoughts wandered.
Frowning, she stood to inspect the room looking for clues about the man who summoned her. Tapestries, which looked as old as the hills, dressed the walls, and the furniture, though opulent, was sparse. A small desk with writing implements stood by the window, and Gretchen rifled through the drawers to look for something insightful. Finding only blank paper, she sighed and crossed to the mantelpiece where knickknacks took pride of place, mostly delicate porcelain figures aside from a crudely carved soldier. As she picked it up, she caught sight of herself in the mirror hanging behind it and startled.
“Holy smokes. This is bad—even for me.”
Her pointed hat had taken a battering on her flight to The Salt and Bog and a few twigs still tangled in her braid. The ride to the castle left dirt smudged on her cheeks and creases marred her dress after hitching it up to sit astride the horse. She tossed the hat aside and untied the ribbon to re-braid her hair.
She had flipped her locks over her head and was shaking out the remaining debris when she heard the door open and a deep voice barking orders. Gretchen straightened and pushed her hair out of her face, dropping into an awkward curtsy as the King’s eyes fell on her. “Your majesty. What is your pleasure?”
This episode is 99 cents while on pre-order so snatch up a copy before it launches on May 5th to get 50% off. You can find it with your favorite book retailer here.
For more bonus content head over to The Damsel Gauntlet page where you’ll find new content each week.