A Solstice Sampling: A Whisper of Winter

Here is the first chapter from my upcoming prequel novella, A Whisper of Winter.


Sometimes Evelyn Rosewood truly despised living in the southwest tower of Crownvale Castle, what with its leaky roof, drafty windows, and the way a strong buffet of wind could make the whole thing feel on the verge of toppling over. And that was to say nothing of the one-hundred-and-sixty-four steps leading to and from her shabby chamber in the clouds.

She’d counted. Many, many times.

However, as with most things in life, there were exceptions, and when Evelyn woke the Caelmorn before the winter solstice, and found her tower awash in bright sunlight, she couldn’t help but smile as she shuffled to her window and looked out upon a world changed.

The trees in the southern orchards, long since stripped of their colorful leaves, stood frosted in snow, with gleaming icicles dripping from their bare branches. Likewise, the wheat fields lay tucked beneath a thick blanket of snow. Warm rays of sunlight filtered through the silver sky, sparkling and dancing along the snow’s untouched surface.

Evelyn sighed happily, even as she fought off a shiver. “Welcome, Iseulta,’“ she said quietly, dipping her chin in reverence to the goddess of winter.

A frantic rattling pulled her from the moment of silence, and she twisted, clutching her wool blanket a little more tightly around her shoulders.

There, in the paned window on the opposite side of the tower, hovered a small brown owl, its wings beating furiously against the frozen air.

Evelyn sighed as she hurried to open the window before the owl continued pecking at the glass. “Oh, Archie.”

A frosty blast ushered the owl inside, and Evelyn carefully pushed the window closed once more. “That’s all I need, is a broken window!” she scolded the owl, who was already across the tower and perched in front of the fire, which was more or less reduced to embers.

“Have I ever broken it before?” the owl retorted as he spread his feathered wings and turned to warm his backside. He gave the fire a pointed look, then snapped his golden eyes to the modest pile of kindling beside the stony hearth.

For a moment, Evelyn hesitated, balking at the owl’s silent order, but she quickly relented. Her nightclothes and knitted socks were no match for the morning’s chill, and she had work to do that required the use of her fingers. Letting them freeze out of spite wouldn’t do anyone any good.

With a few coaxing movements and a fresh layer of thin logs, the fire blazed back to life and Archie gave a contented hoot as he relaxed on the small perch.

“How was your hunt?” Evelyn asked as she turned back to survey the peaceful scene out the window once more, wanting to linger in the quiet beauty a little longer before shifting her mind to the order of the day.

“Difficult!” Archie replied, his voice gruff and grumbly. “All the tastiest morsels are in their holes and burrows.”

Evelyn smiled, but kept her face hidden behind the tangled mess of chestnut waves and half-formed curls that fell past her shoulders.

“I was hoping to stick around long enough for Tansyleaf to arrive. Perhaps I might convince her to rustle one of the field mice out to play.”

Evelyn scoffed. “You know she doesn’t use her powers for things like that. She believes in the natural order of things.”

“Even if that means I’m left to starve?!” the owl hooted indignantly.

Evelyn leaned her elbows against the stone window ledge, her nose all but pressing to the frost-lined glass. Across the field, the first inhabitant of Benenfar was venturing into the snow, coaxed out by the morning sun; a small brown rabbit.

“I’m sure you’ll sort it out,” she said.

“When are the others arriving?” Archie asked.

At that, Evelyn straightened and took stock of her tower. Strings of herbs crisscrossed along the rafters and along the roughly hewn mantle. A large, and slightly wobbly, table stood under the opposite window, a mess of ingredients, glass vials, clay pots and jars, and her collection of mortars and pestles. Her largest cauldron sat beside the hearth, while her smaller one hung over the crackling flames. An unmade bed, with half its blankets pulled off and dragging in her wake, stretched along the opposite wall. The room’s circular shape didn’t lend itself to shelves, so most of her books, clothing, and other belongings sat in a pair of trunks, one at the foot of the bed, the other stashed under her worktable.

None of it was ideal, but Evelyn had done her best to make the strange setup work during her four years of service to the king of Calendra.

“After midday,” Evelyn replied to Archie, even as she debated where to begin with her preparations. Somehow, she felt tired, despite having only just left her bed.

In truth, she needed a break, and was looking forward to the solstice even more this year than those past. The day itself would be hectic and busy, as the king always held a feast to honor the goddesses—though from Evelyn’s point of view, it seemed more of a way to celebrate the king’s royal wine stores than anything else. But when the festivities faded, and the last lord and lady departed from the hall, the four witches of Benenfar would gather for their own annual celebration.

The year was nearly at its end, though the troubles would undoubtedly spill into the next, as rumors of war continued to swirl throughout the kingdom. King Ayren’s right to the throne was in question, and the nobles were being forced to choose whose side to take in the brewing battle. The tension and uncertainty of their daily lives threatening to grind everyone in the kingdom down to bone dust, especially within Benenfar, the kingdom’s capital city, as it would undoubtedly be the target of the king’s adversaries. A day of peace and joy was what they all needed, her and her fellow royal witches more than most.

They’d taken to calling themselves the Four Corners Coven, as they each hailed from the farthest realms of Calendra. Evelyn from the Sisters of Caele, in the East, where they celebrated the goddess of springtime. Merielle Bluevale hailed from the Silver Tide Isles to the south, where the goddess Talira reigned over the long days of summer. Tansyleaf Bramblebush hailed from a gnomish coven in the West, serving as a Sister of Avalora, the goddess of the harvest. Lastly came Odessa Faebairn from the frosty north, where the sisters served Iseulta, the goddess of winter and death.

At first glance, it would appear the witches had much in common. They were of the same age, somewhere amidst their thirtieth year, unwed, and masters of their particular magical craft. However, that was only the surface of the matter. Anyone who knew anything about witches—of which there was a diminishing number—knew the four covens could not be more different, and that the variance in their chosen goddess and season was only the beginning of their differences, not where they ended.

While the Covens of Calendra all loosely followed the same traditions in their service to the goddesses, they changed from one season to the next, and their homelands were different, both in weather and climate, leading to vast differences in their customs and lifestyles. And the way they selected whom to send into royal service was different, leading some to Crownvale Castle by sheer chance, others by talent and acumen, or more rarely, request.

Not all who were selected for a term of royal service found common ground with the other witches. There were terrible stories and legends of strife and conflict, which occasionally even boiled over into violence. Fortunately, it was not so for Evelyn, Tansyleaf, Merielle, and Odessa. They were more than witches forced into the same unfortunate circumstances—at least, that was how Evelyn saw their conscripted duties—but they were more than that, too.

They were friends.

And as friends did, they planned to spend the coming solstice together, sharing the customs and traditions of their homeland, along with a festive meal. They would exchange gifts and good tidings, and reflect on the seasons past and the spring yet to come.

While Archie dozed before the fire, Evelyn spent the morning rushing about the tower, cleaning and preparing for her friends to visit her that afternoon. As to not waste time, she didn’t bother leaving her tower long enough to find a proper meal, and instead munched on a wedge of cheese and the remaining half a loaf of sourdough bread from the night before. Before brushing the crumbs from her worktable, she pressed her thumb into the worn and knotted slab of wood, collecting the tiny bits of hard cheese that had crumbled along with her meager sandwich, then sucked her thumb clean.

It would horrify Odessa to find her eating something so plain. Being friends with a kitchen witch came with its own benefits, chief among them, access to the finest dishes the royal kitchens offered. But Evelyn hated making any of her fellow witches trek all the way up to the top of her tower, and by the time she’d arrived home from the village the night before, it had been too late to get a proper meal. She hasn’t meant to be out all day and well into the night, but sometimes one thing led to another.

A local farmer had fallen from a ladder as he’d helped to hang the painted banners for the winter’s night market and badly injured his leg. Nearly as soon as the original house call reached its end, Evelyn found herself beckoned to the neighboring farm, where a dappled yearling was suffering with a retched respiratory infection. After doling out another of her potions to help the poor creature, Evelyn was invited to dine with the farmer and his wife, and sent back to the castle with the loaf of bread, a block of cheese, and a basket with half a dozen brown eggs.

After clearing away the remnants of her makeshift lunch, Evelyn set about finding a set of mugs unmarred by chips or cracks, and whipped up a new blend of tea for her friends to enjoy. With the changing of the season, she changed her usual recipe, adding cloves and freshly ground cinnamon, bits of dried apple, and the barest pinch of ground nutmeg.

Assuming she could find it.

Frowning, she consulted the assortment of glass bottles in her cupboard. There were leaves of peppermint and lavender, dried rose petals, seeds of anise and caraway, along with various magical components like powdered bard beetles, dried mandrake root, and the essence of silverleaf. The common herbs and spices clustered together in identical glass bottles, most of them bearing a hand-painted label depicting the cobbled streets of a picturesque port town along the sparkling Shieglas Sea.

Far, far from Calendra’s capital.

A familiar longing stirred in her chest as she traced a thumb over the well-worn label, dreaming idly of the blue-green seashore and the quaint town set alongside it.

A startled hoot yanked her from the quiet reverie, and Archie declared, “I hear footsteps!”

With a jolt, Evelyn set the bottle down on the table and turned an ear toward the door to her quarters. Sure enough, a knock sounded a moment later, and Evelyn pulled open the door to find her three fellow witches standing on the small stone landing, all in various levels of exhaustion. Odessa was the least affected by the climb, given she had the benefit of her dark purple-and-black fairy wings to aid her in the steep climb, but even so, a hint of blush shone in her pale white cheeks. Merielle could out-swim anyone in the kingdom, but was used to lower elevations and humidity, and struggled in the cold, thinner air of Benenfar. Her warm brown skin glowed with a sheen of sweat as she caught her breath. However, it was Tansyleaf who struggled the most with the climb—not that she would ever complain—as the gnome-witch’s legs were less than half the length of the other three, making the stairs even more daunting.

“Honestly, Ev, I don’t know how you do this every day,” Merielle huffed.

Tansy nodded in fervent agreement.

Evelyn smiled and stepped back to allow her friend’s entrance. “I’m sorry. I know it’s a hike.”

“At least on a hike there are things to look at to help take your mind off the burning sensation in your backside!” Tansy exclaimed through another labored breath. She rubbed her small, calloused hands over her own posterior as the three witches stepped into Evelyn’s quarters. “Here it’s just stone, stone, and more stone.”

A lanky fox with dark auburn-and-gold-fur darted inside just before Evelyn could shut the door to block the drafty air coming from the stairwell.

Archie let out a frantic hoot and flew up toward the rafters so quickly he lost a feather. The fox pounced on the tawny feather, then glanced up at the owl, dark golden eyes gleaming.

Odessa lunged toward the fox. “Sorcha!”

“You told me that beast was banished from the tower, Evelyn!” Archie hooted, glaring over the side of his newfound perch.

“Banished? For what?” The fox asked, her voice husky and tinged with amusement as she pawed at the fallen feather, batting it around the hearthstones, as Archie watched with wide-eyed horror.

Odessa pointed a finger at the floor. “Sorcha, stop that. Lay down, or I’ll send you back into the snow.”

The fox gave the feather one more swat with her dark brown, nearly black paw, then turned in three small circles and laid down with her back to the fire. “Fine.”

“My apologies, Archie,” Odessa added, giving Evelyn’s owl an apologetic glance. “I promise she’ll behave.”

“The only way you could keep that kind of promise is if she were turned into a fur-trimmed cape!”

Sorcha flashed her sharp teeth and growled.

“Archie!” Evelyn exclaimed. “That’s enough of that.”

“Shall I put the kettle on?” Merielle asked, already reaching for the wooden handle of the hammered copper vessel.

“Please,” Evelyn replied with a nod. “I’m sorry you had to come all the way up here, but—”

Odessa cut her off midway with a wave of her hand as she dropped into one of the straw-backed chairs. She flung one leg casually over the others, her leather boots the cleanest among the witches. Both she and Tansyleaf wore trousers, while Evelyn and Merielle wore dresses under their winter cloaks.

“Trust me, I’m happy to be anywhere but in the kitchens,” she said with a smile. Her long hair hung loose about her shoulders, thick and the color of the lilacs that bloomed in spring. “If we’d met in my chambers, we’d undoubtedly have to deal with Tomlin.”

All four witches shuddered at the prospect.

The king’s chamberlain had a habit of loitering in the kitchens. Tomlin smelled like boiled cabbage and whiskey, and stuck his bulbous nose into every last pot and kettle, asking more questions than a nosy fish wife. And when he wasn’t subtly insulting Odessa’s cooking, he was leering at the young maids who served in the kitchen. Fortunately, Odessa had no qualms about inserting herself between Tomlin and the maids, as something of a buffer, often lobbing thinly veiled insults at the chamberlain until he got fed up and went to make his official report to the king.

“It’s not a problem,” Merielle said, crossing to the window, the floorboards squeaking softly under her tread. A threadbare rug stretched over the stone floor, with one corner tacked down by a metal bucket, slowly filling drip by drip as the snow on the roof melted and seeped through. “After all, it’s hard to complain with a view like this,” Merielle added.

Tansy kept away from the window, her shoulders nearly pressed flat against the stone wall. “I’ll take your word for it.”

The witches laughed—well, except for Tansy. The gnome was quite fearless when it came to most things, but heights always gave her pause.

“You could have a room just like it,” Odessa reminded Merielle, flashing Evelyn a knowing smile.

Upon arriving in Benenfar, Merielle was offered a room in the northern tower, but had declined, opting instead to live in a craggy cave along the river. She claimed it was impossible to fall asleep without the sound of water in her ears. Of course, the witches also knew she liked the labyrinth of rock tunnels to store her myriad of treasures and trinkets away from prying eyes and slippery fingers. In the summer and early autumn, she slept on the river bank, under the stars, but would now seek refuge and warmth deeper into the caverns as the kingdom turned into a patchwork quilt of snow and frost.

“I think I’ll stay in the cave,” Merielle confirmed, and while a smile passed over her lips, it was fleeting as she stared out upon the snow.

None of them had bothered with their formal witch’s hats. Merielle’s tight black braids hung over one shoulder, gathered into a single tail that fell nearly to her hips. Tansy kept her reddish-brown hair short, though she sometimes reminisced about the feel of the wind through the longer hair she’d had as a girl.

“I would invite you to my quarters, but I don’t imagine the scent of horse dung goes well with afternoon tea,” Tansy jested, finally edging away from the wall, though she kept her eyes from the window.

Evelyn smiled, thinking of the cramped loft space above the royal stables. It was a small room, with a creaking old ladder, almost reminiscent of the crow’s nest on a ship. The space worked well for the gnome-witch and allowed her to be close to the animals she tended, but did not make for the ideal gathering place.

In the summertime, they’d often meet behind the stables, where Tansy had set out four hand-carved chairs around a large tree stump that made for a rather nice tea table, but it was too cold now, and besides the weather, Tansy was liable to take off in pursuit of a frost fox or red-beaked swallow, if one should come too near the stable. She kept a detailed journal filled with sketches and information of every animal and creature who crossed her path, no matter how big or small. It was an endearing quality, and one vital to her role as the head groom of the royal stable. Her keen eye for detail often meant the difference between catching a horse’s illness before it became too late to help.

“Well, you’re all here now,” Evelyn said warmly. She gave the mugs one more glance-over, then set them in a neat line before retrieving the kettle from where it hung over the fire and tossing in a generous scoop of tea to steep.

Sorcha raised her head from the warm stones, looking up at Evelyn with eyes that brimmed with mischief.

“I think I’ll take my leave, if you don’t mind,” Archie said, stepping off his perch. He swooped low over the fox’s head, taunting her, before darting toward the window.

Merielle obliged Evelyn’s cranky familiar, opening the window just enough to let him pass.

“Honestly,” Odessa said with a shake of her head as she looked at her own familiar, “I don’t know why you two can’t get along.”

Sorcha lowered her head back down and closed her eyes. “You’d have to ask him.”

Odessa and Evelyn exchanged a glance.

“Are any of you planning to attend the night market? It opens today, at dusk,” Evelyn asked.

“I’ll be there this afternoon to put the finishing touches on the ice sculptures,” Merielle replied, turning away from the window. “The king keeps changing his mind about what he wants.”

A murmur of commiseration rumbled through the tower.

Beside her, Tansy was trying—with considerable effort—to climb onto Evelyn’s work stool. Odessa offered to give her a boost, but the oft hard-headed gnome refused, and as if propelled by sheer stubbornness, vaulted up to her perch and smiled.

“I’m definitely going to the market,” she said, twinkling her bare toes. Evelyn politely ignored the caked dirt on the soles of her calloused feet. “I can hardly wait to get my hands on some of Eimear’s berry tarts!”

Odessa laughed. “With as many as you ate last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to find you’d wiped out her out her jam supply for the next two winters!”

Tansy chuckled, the sound surprisingly deep, given her small stature. “Then I’ll harvest the berries myself and bring them to her! Evelyn could sneak me into the gardens, couldn’t you, Ev?” The gnome waggled her unkempt brows in Evelyn’s direction.

Evelyn swallowed hard, thinking of a way to let her friend down easily.

Luckily, Odessa jumped in before Evelyn had to supply a response. “Oh, no! Not after last time. Evelyn told me you got caught swiping golden cherries from the king’s tree! You’re lucky they did not throw her into the dungeons for that.”

Merielle’s lips curved upward as she moved closer to the hearth and pressed her hands together, as though working the warmth of the flames into her skin like a balm. “Good thing old Percivale is sweet on our Ev, or else this winter solstice celebration would be quite a sad affair indeed.”

Evelyn’s nose scrunched. “Hardly. If anything, he was simply afraid to go to the other guards and risk them catching a whiff of his breath. He’s not supposed to drink wine on duty.”

The other three laughed and exchanged knowing glances. Evelyn flapped a hand at the trio and set about making the tea. She poured the piping hot amber liquid through a woven strainer, the scents of cinnamon and apples swirling up to meet her. Please, she filling each mug to the brim, then handed them out to her friends.

As she waited for her own tea to cool, she began her next task, and reached for the small clay jar she’d set beside her smaller cauldron. Turning, her smile widened, her eyes dancing with glee, for the jar did not contain hand salve or bits of dried fruit, but four small scraps of parchment, torn from the back pages of her journal. The scraps showed slight signs of water damage, thanks to her own clumsy fingers whilst out foraging near her favorite frog pond, but she knew the others wouldn’t mind the curling edges.

“Shall we draw names to sort out this solstice’s gift exchange?”

Odessa grinned, the tips of her gossamer wings fluttering. “Yes, please!”

Evelyn extended the clay jar toward her, and Odessa set her mug on the table, before closing her eyes and reaching into the vessel, grabbing blindly for the first scrap of paper her fingers found.

This was the fourth winter solstice they had shared since arriving in Benenfar. The gift exchange had been Tansy’s idea originally, and they’d all enjoyed it so much they kept the tradition going. None of the witches made much at their royal posts, so buying or bartering for three gifts wasn’t feasible. However, if they each took one name, everyone got to give a gift and receive one in return. It was practical, but also lent a bit of mystery to the holiday celebration, which added another layer to the festivities. The drawing of the names over tea was almost its own tradition.

Odessa retracted her hand and made a grand show as she held the folded scrap to her face, tugged it open, and flashed a mischievous grin before tossing the folded scrap into the fire. “Who’s next?” she asked.

Merielle stepped forward and reached for the bowl. She didn’t bother to close her eyes. She quickly snagged a scrap free and slid it into the pocket of her cloak without opening it.

Evelyn extended the bowl to Tansy, close enough for her to reach without having to slide off the stool. Tansy grabbed a scrap with exuberance, holding it above her head, like a flag.

Smiling, Evelyn took the last sip and set the bowl back on her workbench. She and Tansy both peeked at their scraps in unison, and Evelyn nearly laughed as she read the name scrawled in her own hand: Tansy.

She knew just what to get the gnome.

11 Responses

  1. Oooo…the first chapter of A Wisper of Winter is so good. I can barely wait for the book to be published and I’ll bet the audiobook will be fabulous!

  2. I think this is really nice to read and hopefully can read the whole story soon.
    thanks for give me the chance to peek into it in advance.
    merry Christmas and take a break.

  3. Sounds like the start of a really cute story! Can’t wait for the rest of it.

    Have a Merry Christmas & don’t forget to rest!! Thanks for sharing your work with us. 🤗

  4. Oh this definitely whets my appetite for more! I’m going to love this world :).
    Please take care of yourself and rest as much as you need. And Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  5. I love your stories and I can’t wait to read (to listen) the whole book 😍…

    Merry Christmas and a lot of rest and new memories…
    Greetings from Germany

  6. Oh my a short chapter but it sounds wonderful.Just want you to know your books have kept me going thru out the last two years .I have cancer along with short gut syndrome due to an accident while in surgery.but thank you for your talent of writing,I read some and do audiobooks when I can .thankyou.

  7. Enjoy the books 2nd time I listen to the Audio books. Enjoy Holly Character and would like to read more about Harmony. I Overspend December to buy all the Audio books.

    Ina van Niekerk
    South Africa

  8. Enjoy the books 2nd time I listen to the Audio books. Enjoy Holly Character and would like to read more about Harmony. I Overspend December

    Ina van Niekerk
    South Africa

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