Oh hi there. Straight off the bat, you need to know two things about me. I refuse to admit I am lactose intolerant and I absolutely LOVE Christmas time.
Kacey Musgraves Christmas Special? Check.
Jingle All The Way, the best Christmas move ever made, on repeat. Double Check.
So in the spirit of the season, and because I like writing a hundred projects at the same time, I'm releasing a young adult, festive themed fantasy novella called The Winter Dragon, and as the title implies, we have a dragon folks. Add in some adventure, some magic, enemies to lovers tension, a ticking clock and oversized mountain goats and you've got yourself a story! Check out the blurb and cover.
In a land of eternal winter, there is no time of the year the people of Brunn love more than Juletine, when they decorate the towering evergreen and give thanks to the Winter Dragon, who no one has seen for hundreds of years.
But the dragon’s gifts of healing and protection are fading, and when forced to choose between tradition and family, young archer Katja soon learns that Brunn is in far greater danger than she could have ever imagined.
Now with the aid of a brave yet bothersome prince, Katja must trust her instincts and journey beyond the safety of their home to save the ones she loves before the sun sets on Juletine, and stop a powerful foe from taking the dragon’s gifts for himself.
The Winter Dragon releases next week and is available for pre-order now!
Still need a little more convincing? Read the first chapter below. (*subject to change)
Forever and always, snow had fallen upon the village of Brunn. No matter whether it was spring or summer, even when the sun shone so bright it blinded, the frozen lakes never melted and the snowdrifts never shifted. But Katja would have it no other way. Winter was dark and beautiful, the icy winds bracing and alive with the booming voice of winter. She barely felt the cold and loved nothing more than standing in the open during a fresh snowfall and feeling the delicate dusting of frost on her skin. Brunn was wondrous, and there was no finer season in Brunn than Juletine.
The towering pine, its deep green branches powdered with snow, stood proudly in the village centre, looped with braided rope dyed red and dressed in adornments; carved wooden snowflakes, bushels of holly and sewn dolls, all handmade, some with histories that dated back generations.
As one of the taller youths in Brunn, it became Katja’s task to climb the ladder and hang woven garlands of evergreen boughs, pinecones, and winter berries, a tedious task that bored her to tears. But the essence of Juletine was forgiveness, kindness and kin, so Katja did all the season asked of her with a smile on her face and goodwill in her heart, knowing that the excitement she craved awaited her tomorrow. She would pull on her bow and thick pelts and venture into the blizzard beyond the frost wall to help her father and the other trackers hunt deer and rabbits for the Juletine feast.
Katja teetered on her tiptoes to hang the last garland, then slumped over the top of the ladder and let out a heavy sigh, her breath turning to smoke in the chilled air. Her arms felt like deadweight, and she could only hope it wouldn’t be troublesome for lifting her bow. She cast her eyes to the chattering villagers huddled at the base of the pine, taking turns to add the adornments of their families or sharing with their neighbour the new ones they had made. A shock of red hair caught her attention, and she smiled, descending the ladder and making her way to the pine, her deft steps barely leaving a trace in the snow. She held her breath and crept up behind the girl with the wild red hair, her heavy pelt coat dusted with white, and sharply prodded her in the sides. The girl shrieked, startling the villagers around her and scaring a tiny boy bundled in furs enough to send him tumbling backwards into the snow.
“I’m sorry!” she exclaimed, reaching to help the boy to his feet while his mother eyed the two girls curiously.
Katja stifled her laugh, and as soon as the boy was standing again, the red-haired girl swung around and batted her across the chest with the back of her hand.
“Father told you not to hit, Emmely,” Katja laughed.
“Go tell father then,” Emmely growled. “I’ll be sure to tell him you lost a dozen arrows shooting squirrels over the frost wall.”
Katja’s eyes bulged. “You wouldn’t.”
“Oh, I would. Maybe then he will let me take the first shot when we hunt.”
“It’s not my fault my arrow always hits,” Katja said with a smug grin.
Emmely rolled her eyes. “I swear, sister. If your head gets any bigger, there won’t be enough room in Brunn for the rest of us.”
Katja looked over her younger sister’s shoulder and noticed a clay figure in her hand painted a muddy red, a hideous creature with skeletal limbs and a bulbous head, its nose long and pointed and its ears so large they flopped over.
“Why would you make such a thing?” Katja frowned.
“I think it’s quite good,” replied Emmely. “Looks just like an imp.”
“You can’t hang that on the tree,” Katja sighed. “It will scare the children.”
“As it should. Maybe that will get them into their beds early on Juletine Eve and let us older ones enjoy the fire and feast. I’m old enough to have wine in my cup this year.”
Katja swiftly reached around her sister, plucking the imp figure from her hand, leaving Emmely pouting. “You are not putting this on the tree. What’s next? The Imp King himself?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Emmely grumbled. She gave half a smile. “I’ve never seen the Imp King.”
“You’ve never seen an imp either,” Katja said.
“Well, father has,” Emmely snapped defiantly. “And he is a wonderful storyteller.”
Katja exhaled. “That he is.”
“Katja! Emmely!” a deep voice boomed.
Both girls slumped their shoulders and left the pine, making their way to a cluster of wooden homes with steep, peaking roofs blanketed in thick snowfall. Katja sniffed the air as they walked, then scrunched her nose at her sister with disgust.
“Is that you?”
Emmely gave herself a whiff and shrugged indifferently. “It’s from the caprinir stables. What do you expect me to smell like when I clean out mountain goat stalls all day? We can’t all live the sweet-scented life of a tracker.”
“There are a dozen other chores that don’t send you home stinking of a caprinir’s backside.”
“But do any of those chores allow me to ride caprinirs?” Emmely asked, her pitch heightening. “There is this gorgeous copper doe with the biggest, most beautiful brown eyes you’ve ever seen. I call her Misha.”
Katja scowled and cut her off. “Keep your giant goats. I’ll take a horse any day.”
They approached a house with stacks of spears, bows and quivers leaning against a wooden rack and a tall, broad man with a grizzly dark beard filling the door frame.
“Festal Juletine to you, daughters,” their father, Elias, said. He looked them over. “You’ll have to change into your dresses. The king will arrive soon for the gift of the frost jewel.”
They rolled their eyes in unison.
“That woollen dress makes me itch,” Katja stated, much preferring a pair of trousers and loose-fitting shirt.
“You’ll have to braid your hair too,” Elias teased. He tipped his chin at Emmely’s red mane. “Best of luck with that mess.”
He moved out of the doorway and ushered the girls inside the dimly lit house with its low creaking beams, where a fire burned in the hearth and their mother tended a pot of broth hitched over the flames.
“Did you tell them to get into their dresses?” she asked, her eyes trained on her task, her braided hair the same shade of red as Emmely’s.
“I told them,” Elias replied, closing the door firmly and pulling across a pelt curtain to lessen the draft. “They were as excited as you would expect.”
“It is tradition,” their mother sighed. “We receive the king on Juletine Eve and drink the healing waters of the Winter Dragon’s frost jewel, as we have for generations, ever since the jewel was gifted to Brunn centuries ago and your children will do the same.”
Katja scrunched up her face. “I’m in no hurry for that, mother. Just the dress will be fine.”
“Last one up the ladder has to wear the green dress,” Emmely spat, but before the words have passed her teeth, she was already across the room and halfway up the ladder to the second level of the small house.
“But I’m too tall for the green one!” Katja sullenly called after her. She looked at her parents for support. “You let her do as she likes. What luck to be the youngest.”
“There are advantages to being the firstborn,” her father said, a secretive glint in his eye. He and her mother exchanged knowing glances, and Katja pursed her lips curiously.
“What do you mean?”
With an approving nod from her mother, her father opened the doors of a wooden cupboard and retrieved a tiny box wrapped in white cloth.
“You know the tale of Grandfather Isak, how he climbed the mountain all the way to its peak and brought back the treasure he found there?”
Katja’s breath hitched in her throat as the box grew larger in her eyes. “A dragon scale,” she muttered. “From the Winter Dragon.”
A broad smile stretched over her father’s face that lifted his beard and shadowed his dark eyes with his heavy brow. He held the box before Katja and flipped it open, and a gleaming, pearlescent glow immediately struck her.
She tried to hide her disappointment. It was smaller than she thought it would be, the size of her thumb rather than her hand as she expected. Even so it was like nothing she had ever seen, curved and smooth yet dangerously sharp at its point, white as snow but flecked with strikes of green. Katja noted it had been strung with a length of woven leather cord and when her father took it from the box and held it out to her, she felt a hard thump in her chest.
“This is for me?”
Her father nodded. “You are growing into a brave young woman, Katja. You took to a bow quicker than a bottle and I have no doubts you’ll lead the hunting party one day and care for Brunn and its people, just as I have and my fathers before me. This is our families most precious possession. A reminder of the great gift the Winter Dragon felt us worthy enough to receive, and though she disappeared centuries ago, this scale will keep her in our hearts for centuries to come.”
He swept aside her dark hair and tied the cord at her nape and Katja gazed speechless, the scale cold as a lump of ice on her collarbone.
Her mother at last left the broth and stood at her husband’s side, embracing and smiling fondly. “You know. Grandfather Isak told tales of how beneath the Juletine moon the scale would sparkle bright as a star. It’s been in that box so long we have never had a chance to see for ourselves.”
“Then I will find out. Tonight,” Katja breathed excitedly.
“Well,” her mother drawled. “Not before you’ve put on that green dress.”
Katja wilted and exhaled a heavy breath. “Right. I almost forgot about that.”
Her mother laughed. “Go. Now. King Hugo should not be far away.”
Katja wouldn’t have believed her feet were on the ground if she didn’t see them standing there plain as day in her heavy black boots. She ran at her parents, throwing her arms over each of their shoulders and lifting herself off the ground.
“Thank you,” she murmured into the fur collar of her father’s coat.
He coughed at a lump in his throat and patted her back. “You’re welcome, Katja. Festal Juletine.”
“Festal Juletine,” she smiled, slapping a kiss on her mother’s cheek.
Katja all but glided to the ladder and climbed swiftly to reach the open landing at the top. Her and Emmely’s beds were against the window at the back of the triangular room, and through the frost speckled glass Katja could see the rows of dense snowy woodlands that bordered Brunn, and beyond them the blinding white mountain ranges that swept towards the sky, their peaks lost in the wispy mists of winter clouds.
She clutched the scale around her neck. “They weren’t always like that, you know. The mountains. There was a clearing at the summit where the Winter Dragons would roost when the snowfall was not as heavy. But there was a great avalanche long ago that swept over the ranges and each year that clearing is buried further and further beneath.”
“I know the story,” Emmely said, fidgeting with the wooden toggles on her deep, crimson dress. She sighed, exhausted when they were finally done, and looked up at her sister, her eyes finding the scale around her neck right away. “What are you wearing? Is that what I think it is?”
“If you think it is Grandfather Isak’s Winter Dragon scale, then you are right,” Katja said, trying to keep her grin in the corner of her mouth.
Emmely put her hands on her hips and Katja waited for her to tease and taunt as she normally would. Katja had already planned her retort. But instead, she bent down under the bed and retrieved a quiver she had hidden there. She walked nervously to her sister, itching at the woollen collar of her thick dress, and handed her the quiver stocked with twelve arrows.
“I made them myself. To replace father’s missing arrows, the ones you lost. I didn’t think I would be competing with a gift the likes of a dragon scale. I thought they might just give us new wool socks like last Juletine.”
Katja’s jaw fell open. “Emmely… I… that is so thoughtful.”
Emmely’s gaze went to the floor. “Well, don’t make a fuss over it. I didn’t even try very hard to be honest.”
Katja examined the obvious care that went into each arrow and would not allow her sister to pretend they were anything less than perfect. She threw her arms around Emmely, as she seemed to be doing with everyone in the house, and even though Emmely resisted at first, slowly her hands circled Katja’s back and they enjoyed the warmth between them.
Katja pulled away, clutching the quiver tight to her chest. “I will give my gift tomorrow before the feast.”
Emmely eyed her suspiciously. “Is that because you don’t have one for me yet?”
Katja slapped her shoulder. “Of course I do. It’s a surprise.”
“You really don’t have to get me something if you have forgotten,” Emmely said, turning and walking towards their wardrobe. She fumbled around before spinning with a shapeless green dress in her arms. “Because seeing you in this horrid thing is going to be its own gift.”
Katja shook the quiver at her. “You’re lucky I don’t have my bow.”
Emmely laughed and tossed her the dress. “Hurry up and get dressed. I don’t want to miss King Hugo’s sleigh arriving.”
“Is that because Prince Theo will be right beside him?” Katja goaded as she caught the dress, having to brace herself under its weight.
“He’s more your age, isn’t he?” Emmely said. “Wasn’t mother just talking about grandbabies?”
Katja inspected the dress with distaste, and such talk of Prince Theo made her just as sour as the woollen monstrosity. “That fluffy haired twit hasn’t known a day’s hard work in his entire entitled life. I bet if you gave him a sword he wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it.”
Emmely frowned. “You could do much worse, Katja.”
“Then give me worse,” Katja spat bitterly.
She pulled the dress over her head, the itchy fabric scratching her cheeks as it slid down, settling unflatteringly on her hips and as expected, sitting at mid-calf when it should be below her ankles.
“Let me braid your hair,” Emmely said, sitting on the bed, and Katja knelt before her. “Are you excited about tomorrow? I suppose it’s not your first Juletine hunt.”
“It’s exciting every year,” Katja replied as her head was yanked left to right. Her sister was considerate in many things, but braiding was not one of them. “I should be the one asking you. How do you feel? Are you ready for your first hunt?”
“I’ve watched you and father leave without me for too long. My bow is strung, my dagger is sharpened, and I’ve set out my boots and pelts so I’m ready first thing.”
Katja raised an eyebrow. “But how do you feel?”
A breath heaved in Emmely’s chest. “I’m terrified.”
Katja reached behind her and clasped Emmely’s hand. “Father is the best hunter in Brunn, and his tracking party has not taken a single injury in all their years. Not one. Besides, I will be there.” She gripped Emmely’s hand tighter. “And I would never let harm come to you.”
Emmely gave her a playful shove and returned to tugging ruthlessly at Katja’s hair. “I think Juletine brings out the sentimental in you.”
“I do too,” Katja smiled.
“There. All done,” Emmely announced. Katja stood and turned as her sister gestured to her mangled tangle of red locks. “Now you do me.”
Katja winced. “I think we’ll need mother’s help with this.”
After what felt like an age, Emmely’s hair was tamed and braided and the sisters dashed out the door just in time to hear the crowd roar with applause. From the hill on high and encased by evergreens stood the king’s longhouse, its roofs thatched and angled, just like those in the village, but its size far greater with three grand levels and a tower that stretched higher than the trees, the dragon’s head banners of Brunn billowing in the chilled air.
Two powerful grey horses with ivory manes pulled an intricately carved sleigh, its dark wood panels engraved with the Winter Dragon and the frost jewel, as well as the vast mountain ranges surrounding them. While Emmely stood on tiptoes to see over the huddled villagers, Katja could clearly see over the top of most heads, enough to notice that King Hugo was not in the sleigh. Instead, there was only the driver, and behind him dressed in heavy pelts with a beautiful white fur over one shoulder, sat Prince Theo, his hair almost as pale as the snow that drizzled upon his fair face with eyes as piercing as the Juletine stars. He held her attention for longer than Katja would care to admit, especially to Emmely, but he was not at the forefront of her thoughts. She tried to recall just how long it had been since she saw King Hugo. He had been absent from last year’s Juletine, and now that she thought on it, the year before as well. Both times, Theo had taken his place and reported that his father was too ill and being out in the cold did poorly for his legs.
Katja recalled the tale of how King Hugo was injured. It was legend among the villagers, a heroic moment in Brunn’s history when the Imp King and a swarm of his minions had descended upon the frost wall. It was before Katja and Emmely were born, when their father was a young man and King Hugo was still a prince. The wall had always been enough to keep the Imp King at bay. Powered by the frost jewel, it was a whirling blizzard that encircled Brunn, with a secret tunnel being the only way in and out of the village. To this day, no one knows how the Imp King learned of the entrance, but what is known is that Prince Hugo fought and defeated him, driving the imps back to the caves in the outlands of Brunn. But as always, the Imp King left his mark, savaging Prince Hugo’s legs with the serrated edge of his sword.
For years he had suffered through it, gone from a prince to a king, a boy to a husband and a husband to a father, his limp almost as famous as his noble deeds. But now he had become a ghost, hidden away from the people in his longhouse, not even descending from high to perform the frost jewel gift giving. The people seemed to love Theo, though, not that Katja could understand why. He stood so straight yet walked with such an easy bearing, as if without a care in the world. And why wouldn’t he? He was a prince, after all. There were few better occupations. Still, she expected something better from such legendary stock.
A horse and cart followed the sleigh, stacked high with wooden barrels, and Katja’s curiosity was rife again. Perhaps her eyes were playing tricks on her, or maybe she had grown larger, so everything else appeared smaller, but the barrels seemed to have shrunk since last Juletine, in size and in number. To be sure, Katja slapped Emmely’s shoulder.
“Do those barrels look smaller to you?” she asked.
Emmely grumbled, rubbing her arm. “I don’t normally pay attention, but if you say they’re smaller, they likely are.”
The sleigh circled the pine twice, as was the tradition on Juletine Eve, and the villagers clapped and cheered and tossed red-berried twigs at Prince Theo as he waved, a little too pompously in Katja’s eyes. Then the sleigh came to a stop, and the driver pulled open the little door, and Theo swished out, his long white fur trailing behind him in the snow.
“Where is Hugo the Hero!” the crowd called.
Katja sucked in her belly and squeezed through the huddled villagers, hoping to reach the front, eager to hear what Theo’s reply would be.
“Good people of Brunn,” Theo announced, snowflakes settling on the points of the golden band encircling his head. “Festal Juletine!”
“Festal Juletine!” the people cheered in reply.
He smiled, allowing their applause to run its course and bowing humbly before their adoration. Katja could only roll her eyes.
“Where’s Hugo?” she yelled impatiently, ducking down to be a foot smaller and lowering her tone to disguise her voice. She noticed Theo turn her way, and so ducked even lower until she was almost crouching while those surrounding shook their heads at her oddity.
“I regret to inform you kind folk that once again my father finds himself unable to join the festivities of Juletine. His leg continues to do poorly after the maiming unleashed upon him by the wicked Imp King!”
In an instant, the villager’s joy turned to ire at the very sound of the Imp King, and they booed, shaking their fists in the air.
“Kill the Imp King!” someone screamed, and Theo was quick to settle the crowd.
“Juletine is a time of joy, good people. Do not let the evils beyond the frost wall take that gift away from you and darken your hearts. Instead, remember our king for his brave deeds and celebrate.” Theo gestured to his men, and they unloaded the barrels into the snow, tapping each one while the people placed a long table lined with wooden goblets before the Juletine tree. “Now, who will be first to receive the gift of the Winter Dragon? She who grants the people of Brunn health and peace.”
“Katja Palegren wants to be first, my Lord!” a voice called above the thrum, and Katja bolted to her feet, spinning around to see Emmely pointing a bold finger at her.
She glared. “What are you doing?”
“Katja Palegren, daughter of Elias, a long-time friend to my father and provider to the people of Brunn. Yes. She will be first. Come forward, Katja.”
Katja stared daggers at her sister while Emmely tried desperately not to fall over laughing. “I hate you,” Katja mouthed as the crowd parted, creating a path that led straight to Prince Theo.
“Hurry, girl,” a man at her side grumbled, giving a not-so-subtle shove.
Katja ordered her feet to move, and they obeyed, albeit slowly, to where Theo waited. He was handed a goblet and turned the tap on one barrel to fill it halfway. When he turned back to Katja, she stood right before him, and the way he looked at her in that brief moment puzzled her even more than the absent king and smaller barrels. She stood there in a silence that grew more awkward the longer it lasted, and every time Katja thought he might utter a word through his trembling lips he didn’t, so she didn’t either until she could hear the villagers muttering under their breaths.
They spoke at the same time, dropped their chins, then laughed uncomfortably.
Theo exhaled. “Katja. Festal Juletine to you. Please, drink the blessing of the Winter Dragon and be merry and well.”
Katja took the goblet from his hands, his skin brushing against hers, sending tiny tingles up her arms. The water inside was the clearest blue and, as she had every year since she was born, Katja drunk. It only took a single gulp before the cup was dry and again she questioned her memories. Was there less water this Juletine? Katja became so lost in her thoughts that she did not realise she still stood before Theo, staring off into nothing while testing the people’s festive patience.
“Katja...” the prince said from the corner of his mouth, trying to draw her attention while smiling charmingly for the villagers.
“What, Theo?” Katja blurted absentmindedly, the words escaping before she could trap them behind her teeth, and a unanimous gasp swept over the crowd.
Prince Theo cocked a pale eyebrow and Katja wished for nothing more in that moment than for the snow to swallow her whole.
“My apologies, my Lord.”
She bowed her head, returned her goblet to the table, then briskly weaved through the gathering straight to Emmely in the back, who struggled to hide her broad smile. Katja met her with a discrete shoulder barge and Emmely giggled between grimaces.
“He’s such an idiot. Did you see his hands? Smooth as a baby’s. Not a single callous or blister.”
“Hmmm.” Emmely pouted and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Were you obsessing over his hands before or after you called the prince of Brunn by his first name in front of the entire village?” Katja glared and Emmely raised her hands defensively. “I’m just saying. You have nerves of steel, sister, yet you seem to fall over yourself like a fool whenever he appears.”
Katja lifted her nose to the air and crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t be ridiculous. It all happened so quickly, he just caught me unawares. Nothing more.”
Emmely smirked. “Katja Palegren, the great archer and tracker caught unawares? Honestly. You can tell yourself such lies if you like, but there is no use trying them on me.”
“And why is that?” Katja sighed.
“Because I know you better than you know yourself, and if you don’t use that lump inside your chest soon, it will freeze over. Now. Pie?”
Katja looked down her nose at Emmely but would admit only one thing. “Yes. Pie.”
What could possibly happen next? There's only one way to find out!