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Lara's Christmas Gamble



Chapter One

Northern Brugel, 1812

It’s not stealing if I pay it back before they notice it’s gone.

Lara Novak walked the narrow path through the forest. Her stays pinched. Normally her stays didn’t pinch, but normally she didn’t have one hundred silver schlipps sewn into the boning either. On this particularly foggy late November day, Lara’s workmate Miss Jean walked beside, her infant Pavel hitched on her hip.
“I hope she comes.” Steam puffed from Lara’s nose as she tightened the shawl around her shoulders.
Miss Jean patted Pavel’s soft head and cooed, “She promised she would”.
Their steps crunched on the frosty ground. Ahead of them, the path opened out to a dirt road, where the damp air swirled and tried to make rain.
Late autumn in northern Brugel was full of quiet magic; delicate spider webs festooned with droplets of mist; brisk mornings and afternoons of watery sunlight; the milking shed filling with steam as the long-haired goats came in with bloated udders.
Soon it would get really cold, when the sun struggled to penetrate the dark clouds; when snow fell horizontally––and if it didn’t snow, it rained. Soon it would be the magical season of Christmas; yet another bleak year beckoned for Lara. Another year older and no prospects for a family of her own.
The lean months ahead was one reason why Lara’s master, The Comte of Wistringia and his family had fled south to Craviç. The other reason went by the name of Napoleon, who was right now marching his armies east, directly through Brugel, on his way to somewhere else.
Nearly all the servants had gone too, leaving scant staff to tend the animals. The family wouldn’t return to the estate until spring, and only then if Napoleon had finished whatever he was up to.
Lara and Miss Jean were left behind on the estate, tending the animals. A scant few months of freedom to find Lara’s true love and make their fortunes. They’d replace the schlipps they’d stolen so Comte Wistringia and his family would be none the wiser.
Ahead of her, Lara heard the wagon approach through the fog. She saw the muzzles of the two dark ponies, their flared nostrils snorting great clouds of steam. The blur of the painted, covered wagon came into focus, its rich dark timbers creaking as it moved along the road. It came to a stop next to Lara’s path.
Taking a breath to steady her nerves, Lara stepped towards it and knocked on the door.
“You could have run home.” A woman’s muffled voice came from inside the wagon.
“Aye, and I may still,” Lara said, her knees trembling from more than the cold. A now-or-never battle took place inside her mind as she debated whether to run.
The woman chuckled, a rich sound that reverberated inside the cabin and out into the surrounding trees. In summer, the noise would have startled the birds. At this time of year the leafless boughs lay iced and silent.
“Come in child, let me tell your fortune anew,” the woman said, as she opened the door and kicked down the riser so Lara and Jean could step in.
It was the same woman, Alishandra Orona, who had come to the servants’ quarters last week. They’d given her fresh, warm milk; she’d read their palms. Her performance had been entertaining and enlightening, and now she was back. As she’d promised. Her painted face, curly dark hair, layers of shawls and colourful scarves cut a bright scene in the midst of the gloom. On her fat fingers sat every colour of jewel imaginable.
“I’ve not seen the likes in all my days!” Lara said as she took in the sight of all that jewellery, “I had no notion they came in so many shades.”
Again the woman laughed as she helped them into a seat, sealing the door to keep the cold outside. The blend of rich, exotic fragrances assailed Lara’s senses. How warm it felt inside the wagon, cosy enough to remove her shawl and bonnet. Tendrils of her copper hair fell about her shoulders.
“They’re not real jewels, child, though nearly as good. They come from a far-off city called Venice, where they make glass out of sand and they have rivers for roads.”
“Oh be off with you!” Lara said. “Rivers for roads? All the horses would drown!”
The woman roared with laughter, then wiped away a tear of mirth as she composed herself. “But it’s important, you see …” she reached her palm out, inviting Lara to produce hers so the reading could begin, “… Kylara Novak. You are a child of the light, but you are often times too hasty. Your true love is coming, but you will not recognize him at first.”
“How did you know my full name?” Lara gasped––all the same she did not remove her hand, because the gypsy’s accuracy made her keen to know more.
Beside her, wee Pavel gave a mewling cry. Jean cradled him under her shawls and quietly nursed him.
“You have the coins?” Orona asked.
“Yes, I have. Please look away so I may retrieve them.”
The gypsy averted her gaze. Lara removed her top layers then unfastened the ties. With a few judicious rips of the fabric, she had the coins.
“… Ninety seven, ninety eight, ninety nine, one hundred,” Orona counted.
Lara’s pulse kicked up a notch. She’d just stolen a prince’s ransom, for something she’d not even seen. For something that might not even work. Was this some elaborate theft? Would the gypsy kick them out of the wagon and disappear into the mist? No wonder she could afford to wear such incredible jewels.
“You have kept your word, and now I shall keep mine,” the woman said. She opened a soft fabric pouch and withdrew a delicate statue from inside. It looked to be made of nothing at all because Lara could see right through it.
“This is an enchanted faerie. She comes from the city of Venice, and she is made of glass so treat her with care. Take her with you, she will guide you to your one true love,” the gypsy said.
Breathing stalled as Lara took in the sight of the faerie. Then she gasped in shock as the heart of the statue began to glow red.
“She is bonding to you, Kylara Novak. Guard the faerie with your life. Do not give her to any other person, do not allow another person to keep her. When the heart of the fairy changes colour, your true love approaches. When she glows again red, you will meet me in this same place the following morning and return her to me. Your palm tells me you are a woman of your word, but I also see great cunning in you. Deceive me, and all that shall await will be sorrow and loneliness.”

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©E.J. McKenna