I am so thrilled to share the beginning of my new release Troll Gurl and the Cursed Kingdom with you. Enjoy!
Long ago, in a time before we confined our magic to fiber optic cables and microchips, there was a beautiful kingdom nestled in a valley, surrounded by mountains. The ebony mountains only brightened when the sun shone directly upon them, the peaks frosted with snow nine months out of the year. Rolling hills led up to the mountains, carpeted in thick, green grass on which white cows with black spots grazed. The fields of grain and beans created a patchwork in the countryside. In between the patchwork fields were modest wooden cabins that housed families, smoke from the fireplaces curling up towards the sky, the scent of the burned wood ingraining itself with the scent of the cows and dewy grass.
To the north stood a stone castle where the king for the whole valley lived. It wasn’t as large as the castles on the other side of the mountains, but that was fine. Everyone knows what they say about kings with big castles; they must be compensating for their small family jewels.
The people of the kingdom of Inniskellin were happy, for the most part. Sure, there was the occasional brawl at the pub or a land dispute. But everyone got up at the crack of dawn, worked hard, and slept well at night. Inniskellin was growing, little by little, every year.
King Talbot was not the brightest king that had ever existed. But he wasn’t particularly cruel either, so the villagers let his reign continue with no motion to remove him from the throne. He was young, still only twenty when his father died unexpectedly and he took over the ruling duties. That was going on five years ago.
King Talbot was single and a ladies man. He always had a beautiful woman on his arm. At royal balls, his dance card was perpetually full. Coming to power as he entered adulthood may have contributed to his hard-partying ways. He had dark hair and rather plain looks while being slightly overweight and not particularly athletic. But the lasses were all over him, because they all dreamed of one day becoming queen. And the king liked it that way.
The people who lived in the villages directly around the castle were known as living “in the shadow of the castle.” They perceived themselves to be better than the rest of the villages in Inniskellin, because they saw the king more frequently as he traveled in and out of the castle. This caused the people of those close villages to put on airs. The faraway villagers thought of them as snooty for assigning themselves an honor that really only existed in their big heads. Even those within the castle walls did not like the villages in the shadow of the castle, although the king loved the attention they showered upon him.
One day, he was at a faire in a village in the shadow of the castle. All the beautiful ladies were hanging on him, trying to get a dance as the band played a raucous tune. An older woman with a long nose and crooked, umber teeth wearing ragged clothes approached him.
“May I have a dance, sonny?” she screeched.
“Oh, definitely not” those who were witness say he replied.
“What? Well, why not? I just want some face time with my king,” she responded.
“No. What you need is a new face!” the king yelled too loudly to his hangers-on. He guffawed, his belly bouncing with the exertion. He was eating too many treats baked for him by the wannabee queens, and it was showing.
“Excuse me?” the old woman replied in disbelief.
“Wow. Not only is she ugly, she is deaf and dumb too!”
More laughter erupted.
“My ears better be deceiving me. I would hate to have to punish you for disrespecting an old woman.”
“Oh, right, like you could punish me. My royal guards would have you subdued in no time. And I wonder if you even are a woman anymore. You are probably all shrunken, like a dried fruit,” the king snickered. The crowd doting on him hooted and hollered their agreement.
“You best find some respect for your citizens fast, or they will all pay for what you have done here today.”
“No one can harm me. I am the king! Now get out of my sight, you ugly old witch.” The king even made a gesture with his hands, as if he were sweeping her away and out of his sight.
“Oh, you have no idea how right you are, sonny!” The unknown woman cackled loudly. She raised her arms to the sky and magenta smoke began to billow around her.
“I am a witch! And I don’t appreciate being talked to that way. And neither do these greedy whores around you, but they won’t tell you that. You think that your precious guards can protect you from a curse? I think not. I will spread a curse across your land. Death will surround you. As the years pass, it will only get worse, until your whole kingdom and everything in it shall perish.”
Half the people gathered chuckled, thinking this was a joke or an illusion, including the king. The other half trembled in their boots, knowing this could be the end of the pretty charmed existence they had enjoyed up until now.
“But I feel sorry for your kingdom, all those who will die innocently because of your incivility. So, I will give you the key to breaking the curse. Your first born son must kiss the girl in the land who has the truest beauty, through and through. You better hope that he is blessed with the gift of knowing true beauty that you yourself lack.”
And she cackled, disappearing into her purple cloud, and was gone.
All the villagers stared at the king, waiting to see his reaction. They looked to him to know how to respond to this horrific event.
And he laughed.
The king laughed off the curse.
A few others did too. They were suck-ups who would agree with the king on anything. If he said the sky was green, they would agree with him.
The others simply looked at one another. And when their eyes met each other’s, they all reflected the same uncertainty. And this spread like wildfire as they told what had happened between the king and the witch, over and over again, to their families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
At the same instant the angry witch’s curse spread across the land, a baby girl was born. The parents were horrified. The newborn came out as the ugliest baby they had ever seen. When the baby was placed in the mother’s arms, the mother screamed. The mother was so revolted by her baby’s appearance that she opened her arms and the infant fell to the floor hard, and began to cry. Not wanting to kill it, but also not wanting to keep the child, the midwife took it to an orphanage in the next village. It was run by a lady named Miss Peters. She accepted the deformed, mutant-looking pale infant. The baby girl had a giant, bulbous nose. One eyelid drooped lower over the right eye than the left. Her eyes did not contain a bright circle of color, but rather a milky glaze that hid whatever true color may lay behind it. She would tell the girl that she had been found on the doorstep with no one around, to prevent her from ever hoping to reunite with her parents who would never accept her. Miss Peters gave her a beautiful name, hoping it would make up some for her gruesome appearance. She prayed it would improve with age. She named her Guinevere, the name of legend, and often understood to mean “white phantom.”
They all felt the same worry that had not before hung over Inniskellin. Generations of villagers had experienced good fortune. There was still the divide between the rich and the poor. But the people had enough to eat, they were all happy and healthy. No war had come to them. But they could all feel the shift now. As the days passed, an anxiety permeated them as they had never experienced before. It hung on their clothes like campfire smoke. They always were just a little on edge. It was as though a gloomy cloud hung over each of their heads, even though the sun still shined.
But they began to notice subtle changes. The leaves of all the plants started to always be black on the tips. The fruit and vegetables were still grown and harvested. But it made everyone nervous. The cattle stopped getting quite as fat as they used to. Some chalked it up to the people’s paranoia. But when weighed year to year at market, the numbers proved their suspicions right.
In other noteworthy news, shortly after the witch’s curse, King Talbot abruptly married. Some said that he had to.
Seven months later, all the mysterious happenings were momentarily forgotten with the birth of the prince. The bouncing baby boy was chubby and beautiful, with eyes like molasses and curls to match.
The girl named Guinevere grew to be obedient and hard-working, helping Miss Peters with the chores whilst the other children played. Early on they would invite Ginny to play with them, only to be cruel to her. A girl with long, golden hair named Lydia was always the ring leader. She had been at the orphanage since she was a toddler, and was roughly the same age as Ginny. She would have been pretty, had her face not wore a pinched expression at all times as if she smelled something rotten.
The other orphans would play hide-and-seek with her, then forget to seek her, heading off to play another game that did not include her. Sometimes the girls would play knights and robbers and make Ginny be a robber, so that they could tie her up. Once they bound her to a tree in the woods and left her there. Miss Peters did not come looking for Ginny till morning, commenting that she herself was too afraid of the dark to enter the forest at night. Ginny would continue to have nightmares about that incident in the woods for the rest of her life.
Miss Peters told Ginny, “Do not let anyone see that you are weak. Do not let them see that they hurt you. Do not let them see you cry. They will exploit it until you are completely broken.” Ginny felt that Miss Peters should make the other girls stop their behavior. But Miss Peters’s words had told her that it was Ginny’s burden to bear. Ginny was the one who needed to change, not the other girls. She needed to grow a tougher skin against all the teasing and torture. But Ginny could not find that inner strength inside. She always broke down. And that was when the others would tear her apart.
Once a fellow orphan girl named Bridget, who was very fair but so dim she sometimes forgot her own name, happened to touch Ginny’s hair during a game of tag. It was not hard to catch Ginny, as her extra-large feet and short legs gave her a speed and agility disadvantage. It was probably the only reason they let her join in at all. She was always the first one out.
“Your hair is soft,” Bridget remarked in surprise.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I just assumed it would be nasty and stiff like the cow’s hide.” It did not escape Ginny’s cloudy vision that Bridget always escaped milking duties. Or that Bridget was comparing her to a cow’s ass.
“I wash it with the same soap as you do yours. You assumed it would be unpleasant because I am ugly?” Ginny meant for it to come out incredulous, but instead her words were feeble.
“Of course.” Satisfied that their non-conversation was over and Ginny was safely eliminated, Bridget ran back to the game with her band of make-shift sisters.
Ginny knew that is how they all thought of each other. And even at this young age, she knew that that sorority would never include her. She always thought that they teased her all the time only because she looked different. But Bridget’s comment had upset her more than usual. Ginny now knew that they didn’t just think she was different on the outside, they thought she was on the inside as well. She had hoped she would one day grow to be more beautiful and they would accept her. But this new development made Ginny lose all but the tiniest hope of that happening. They made up a jump rope chant, in her honor, that they sang over and over again all day long as each girl took their turn:
I smell the roses
I jump with my feet
All that is beautiful
Can’t be beat
I see a monster
The troll gurl
She will eat you
You better watch out
She’ll eat me too.
After Miss Peters turned down the lanterns and ordered all the orphans to silence and sleep, she always returned to her nearby cabin with the thatch-covered roof for the duration of the night. The girls would then prattle on endlessly about one silly topic or another, sometimes for hours, until exhaustion finally overtook them. Ginny did much of the work that had to be done on the farm and in the kitchen as the others chose not to. She was always exhausted when she hit her pillow, and wished they would all be quiet and go to sleep. But she had to stay awake until the last one was unconscious. She had learned her lesson the hard way. Many nights they had gotten together, coordinated and executed tactile assaults on her while she was in slumber.
Tonight they were supposing on the existence of magic.
“I think magic is real. It has to be,” Marta declared, always the dreamer.
Ginny often had strong opinions on these topics, but she knew better than to speak up. Last time that happened they had cut all her hair off. It was only just now growing out.
“Real things are rain and mud and cow shit—all the things we are surrounded by every day in this hellhole,” Lydia sneered into the darkness.
“So Lydia, you don’t believe that if you kiss enough frogs, one will turn into a prince?” Natalie asked.
“But what about this curse? Without magic, there would be no curse,” Angie inquired.
Although it was dark, Angie’s face popped into Ginny’s mind at the sound of her ragged voice. She had hair that was only one shade shy of being orange, and hung long and loose, though Angie never bothered to brush it.
“There’s no curse. It is all just stories the crazy old folks tell to scare us,” Lydia replied.
“No, it’s real!” Angie protested.
“Oh really? Then how come we are still here? How come the kingdom hasn’t disappeared like cotton candy on your tongue?”
“Now that sounds like magic,” Marta whispered.
“You’ve never had cotton candy,” Angie retorted.
“Have too.” Lydia always had to have the last word. It didn’t matter if it was a lie.
There was silence for a few moments.
“So you think when I wish on a falling star, it means nothing?” Marta asked.
“Nothing. Life, death. None of it means anything,” Lydia responded.
“That is a horrible way to be,” Marta said.
“It’s real,” Lydia stated.
“The king is smart. He wouldn’t fight a curse by collecting more taxes and drafting more knights if no such thing existed.”
“The king isn’t smart at all.”
Ginny could agree with that, from fragments of what she heard the adults say.
“Maybe it is all a lie. Maybe it is just a way for the prince to be the talk of the kingdom. Some day he will pick out the best kisser to be his queen.”
“Nobody said that he would have to marry the girl whose kiss breaks the curse.”
“But why wouldn’t he?”
“Because maybe he won’t love her.”
“Maybe love is the real magic,” Marta offered.
A hush fell over all the girls then. They were all here, stuck in the care of Miss Peters. None of them had known a mother or father’s love. But the others had hope of one day marrying a dashing stranger. Ginny had no such preconceived notions. There would always be only herself, and whatever self-reliance she could muster. When all their breathing fell even in the room, she crept outside into the pitch black night to look at the sky.
Ginny could not shut her mind down. Was there really a curse? And if so, why wasn’t the kingdom destroyed yet? Most of all, why had Ginny ever been born to look this way, instead of normal? She felt normal inside, she thought. How had the outside gone so wrong?
Ginny yearned to know what it was like to be beautiful. She wished one day that she would wake up and could peel the ugly off of her face. She was so tired of how everyone looked at her. They saw her glazed eyes, her droopy eyelid, her giant nose, and assumed she was also feeble-minded. But she had millions of ideas run through her head every day. Brilliant ideas! She had feelings! If you threw rocks at her, did she not hurt? If you cut her, did she not bleed? There were just as many deep thoughts going on inside her brain as anyone else. Probably more than some of the air-brained girls she was forced to share a bedroom with.
She looked up at the stars then. They seemed so bright tonight. Then she saw it: her first ever shooting star. Hadn’t Marta, so small and impressionable with her big round eyes and short black hair, said you should wish on it? So Ginny wished her deepest, most heartfelt wish. She wished to be pretty.
From the broken mind of Jennifer Friess, the joining of hearts & souls…
NOW AVAILABLE! Troll Gurl and the Cursed Kingdom