Good morning, baby ducks, and welcome to Sneak-Peak Sundays! From now on, I will be releasing some fun, exclusive content on coming releases, future projects, and fun facts!
Today, I have for you a sneak peek at my debut novel, A Dowry of Snails and Mud, releasing January 10th, 2023!
Please, enjoy the first chapter, and if you'd like to see more, my debut is available for pre-order most everywhere books are sold!
"On the subject of mollusks."
I hate snails. That's the sum of it.
They're awful, gritty, gummy, invasive pests.
I plucked a particularly obese specimen out of the mud, rolling it between my fingertips. How would it feel to crush it, to let the shell crack beneath my chipped nails? Do they pop like ripe plums, or melt like slugs? Questions for later.
Instead of committing a murder, I tossed the defenseless creature into my bucket with a sigh, sending it to join the doomed fate of its brothers and sisters. I glared up at the sky. It had always done a tremendous job of matching my mood, and today wasn't the exception—gray, bland, and a wee bit testy.
Ice cold raindrops fell, seemingly at random, but somehow still managed to strike the tip of my nose. At this point, the weather hadn't convinced me of its neutrality.
"You shouldn't scowl at them." My twin brother, Drystan, picked through a patch of reeds. For a moment, I wondered if he meant my aerial attackers or the snails. He sniffed. "It's not polite."
I arched a brow. Drystan grinned at me, his golden-blonde hair, and dark, blue eyes the same color as mine. I snatched a snail from my bucket and chucked it at him. "Is this polite?" A second snail went airborne. "How about this?"
Drystan caught the projectile vermin, then pouted as he cupped them in his palm, stroking their spiral shells. "Your misery isn't their fault. Leave them be."
"They're getting eaten either way. Manners won't save them."
Drystan huffed. "Roasted or not, Rhia, you should be kind to your subjects." His shoulders slumped. "But I guess—by the end of tomorrow—we'll all be your subjects, won't we?"
I stood, ignoring the creak in my lower back, nausea rolling through my insides.
Subjects. I'll have subjects, responsibilities. I'll have a husb—
I shook my head to chase the thought away. Not now. Not today. I turned to my brother, forcing a fake smile. "Let's get these back to Papa. I've had enough of wading around in this slop."
Drystan nodded and followed me out of the mudflats—a two-acre flat chunk of land on the outskirts of my village, infested with the round, crunchy critters. We used to farm potatoes in the flats, but with all the rain in the last few years, the ground had congealed into an algae-filled swamp—no more potatoes.
The lush, beautiful Wentwood forest surrounded the fields, calling to me as we walked, whispering that I should find out just how deep its rabbit holes could go. I ached to feel the bark of oak and ash, to smell the ferns curling out of the earth. I could escape. Just keep running until a less burdensome life found me, or I disappeared completely. I wasn’t sure what sounded better.
But the forests weren't safe anymore, and we couldn't hunt. Not when invaders loomed just beneath the shadows of the canopy, and they’d stolen all our weapons. I'd put arrows through their eyes if we had any, but arrowheads require steel, and steel required money.
We didn’t have either.
As Drystan and I moved across the flats, muck splattered my trouser legs and threatened to suck the boots straight off my feet. I grimaced. This may be my last day wearing pants. It would be all gowns and petticoats from now on.
I glanced at the dirt packed beneath my nails, staining my fingers, matching the murky browns of the village ahead—Lians. My home, the only home I'd ever known. The Wentwood forest connected the regions of Monmouthshire and Gwent, and Lians sat just at the latter's border. I’d grown up surrounded by trees. Earth, bark, and leaves inhabited every part of my soul.
As the oldest community in the region of Gwent—a providence in southeast Wales—and far from the King and his royal city, Lians had been here for centuries. Sure, there were other villages, but they'd turned to a nomadic way of life—trekking to the lowlands in the cold months, then to the highlands in the summer. Moving flocks, gaining their income from outside trade. I'd heard some of them had even gone as far as to barter with foreigners on the coasts.
But not my people. We were hardy, had overcome every adversity thrown our way, and would continue to do so for hundreds of years more.
At least, I'd always thought so—and Papa never failed to remind us of it, again and again. We are not kneelers. He'd say when we were young, sprawled in his armchair, wiping ale foam from his mustache. We don't kiss bottom, scrape boots, or spread sugar on what we say and do. You are a Caddell, Rhia, and you bow to no one.
I thought those words would protect me, and I often repeated them in the night, wrapped in my threadbare blanket as the wind howled through the cracks in our rattling windows.
But now, a part of the royal city was coming here—for me—and it felt like one big joke. Except, I wasn't laughing.
We continued our walk in silence, heavy pails clicking against our knees. I tried to ignore the worried glances Drystan sent my way every few paces, as if he expected me to vanish into a mist at any moment. I supposed that's how it must feel—like he is about to lose me.
And in a way, he was. He'd see me with his eyes, but a class-fueled barrier would always linger between us now. Creating resentment, creating distance.
All because I'd soon be marrying a Crown Prince of Wales.
Let's go for a tour, shall we?
If you could view it from above, Lians would look like an oversized carriage wheel. Town Hall sat at the center—an ancient, round pine-log construction surrounded by hitching posts and hay troughs. Not that we needed them. In total, there were three horses in Lians—all owned by my father, the mayor. Worn dirt streets stretched off in every direction from the Hall, leading to the different "districts"—if you could call them that.
The village's west side consisted of the blacksmith, a carpenter, a stonemason, and a butcher—all owned by the same families for generations.
The East and South sides were homes—all cut stone, bare windows, and thatch rooves. The North held our meager livestock barns and adjoining pens. What few sheep we owned were used for meat and wool. Even on the rare occasion we did have an abundance, Papa refused to trade.
Despite its age, Lians wasn't large. Some of the younger villages in Gwent had expanded to having thousands of residents, but not us. Our sloppy roads were a hazard to the few precious wagons we owned—used to haul crops to and from the fields—and moving between towns would endanger their delicate wheels. So, everyone walked instead. Each town and village elected its own mayor, who served as leader. My ancestors served as mayor since Lians' founding.
Some princes or another controlled many of Wales' regions, but not Gwent. None wanted to travel so far south, especially when the King's current residence, Aberaron, lay in the western region of Ceredigion, by the sea.
I do feel obligated to tell you that Wales doesn’t really have a king. Just a prince, who rules in place of the King of England, then continues to spawn gaggles of potential, future princes. But, for simplicity’s sake though, we’ll call the head prince the King, and not all of his “princes” are sons. Some are appointed, allowed to rule smaller regions. All of them are a nuisance.
Lians may not be much, but it’s mine, and I know every tree, twig, and root. Every incline and slope in the landscape. No one could take that from me—that deep-rooted sense of belonging to the land. You are a Caddell, and you bow to no one.
Smoke billowed from Town Hall's chimney, along with steam as raindrops hit the hot stones. Drystan opened the main doors, and a glorious wave of burning air slapped me in the face, greedily sucking the moisture off my damp skin. After a moment, my eyes adjusted to the dim lights and dryness. Despite our low supply of candles, I counted ten lit and randomly placed on the Hall's encircling floor-to-ceiling shelves—what little light they gave absorbing into the dark cherry walls.
As we moved inside, I curled up like a pill bug to find a place to stand between all the sweaty bodies. Every face in the village had arrived to help prepare for the most dreaded—I mean—exciting event in Lians’ history.
As others noticed my arrival, I managed to grin back at the cordial smiles that greeted me. Pleasant, but not friendly. I'm sure most of them would have loved to knock my teeth out. They weren’t any happier for the coming ceremony than I was.
Catching sight of Papa, Drystan and I pressed against the wall, sidling through the crowd until we'd reached the opposite end of the room. A massive, rounded hearth towered in the center of the Hall, customarily surrounded by benches so the villagers could gather to keep warm during the cold months. Now the benches sat in lined rows to be used as tables, the hearth commissioned for cooking and boiling water instead of just a toe heater.
Papa smiled at us as we approached—in all his round-bellied glory, complimented by his thinning blonde hair and chipped peg-leg. The mayor of Lians—and the reason it had to be me getting married tomorrow.
Let me explain.
Papa stopped paying the King's tax years ago. Refused would be a better word. If the King couldn't protect us and feed us when we starved, why should he pay him? What does that flat bottomed prick know of toiling in the soil? He'd rant. Has he ever felt the sun beating on his back, knowing his crack would be pink by the end of the day, and keep working despite? I think not. I can't respect a man that's never had a burnt crack.
And Papa got away with it, for a time . . .
Until the King demanded the gold due to him, and Papa refused. The King continued to insist, and Papa continued to decline.
And the spiral went on and on, until one day, Papa got a letter—the prince, the King's sixth son, would be here by the end of the month to take my hand. Papa was furious. Mama said I should see it as an honor, but the entire village and I saw it for what it was—a trap.
If we refused the proposal and insulted the King, that would be a good enough excuse to wipe Lians off the map without drawing any sour looks from his lords. If we accepted, he got to rid himself of an extra son while also sending someone to force us into submission.
Little did the prince know, I wasn't the only one who'd refuse to bow. My people didn’t take well to strangers. He was in for the ride of his life.
"About time you trouts showed up." Papa gruffed, taking our buckets. "I was starting to wonder if the mudflats finally swallowed you both whole." He winked. "I hate being wrong—and here I hoped I’d have two less mouths to feed."
"If only.” I rolled my eyes. “I'd take being eaten by a mud monster over what's to come any day."
Papa’s lips pursed, avoiding my gaze, as he set our new crop of snails aside for washing. Later, we'd haul them to the castle for boiling.
Yes, Lians has its very own castle. No, it doesn't have a name, so don't ask. Why name something without a purpose? It's a ruin now, but after tomorrow it would be my home. Maybe I'll come up with a title later. I smiled to myself. The pit of despair? No, no, that's already taken.
I glanced around, sucking in a deep breath. There were so many snails to be washed. It would take all night. I didn't feel like spending my last evening as a free woman shoving my fingers in nasty, stinking shell holes. Unless . . . I crossed my arms and batted my lashes. "Have you seen Mama?”
Papa nodded, stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the malted grain recipe he used for ale, by the smell. "She’s helping with the vegetables.” He sniffed at the steaming water then made a face. “Lord above, what I’d give for real drink. You’d think someone in this blasted region would know how to make a good ale. If only your grandfather were still alive. God rest his brewer’s soul.”
“Can you get Mama for me?” My words came out sharp, but I managed to twist them into a croon, making Drystan raise a brow. I ignored him. “My feet are killing me.”
Papa blinked, startled. It wasn’t often I asked for things from him outright. Everyone else? Sure. But not him, being the man of the house, and all. He wiped his muddy hands onto his pant legs. “A-all right. Hold on.”
Once he’d hobbled out of eyeshot, I grinned at my brother, nodding toward the full pails. “Help me load these on the wagon, would you?”
Drystan’s brows rose even higher, wrinkling his forehead. “But they’re disgusting.”
“I know.” My grin widened. “Let my dear, sweet prince enjoy a mouthful of grit. It’s good for his health, you know. Very cleansing for the bowels.”
It took a moment, but Drystan’s smile matched mine. “You realize we all have to eat those, right?”
I shrugged. “It won’t kill you, but it will be wonderfully satisfying for me.”
“You’re a terror.”
Another shrug. “No more than you.”
“The girls cooking will see the dirt.”
“And you’ll tell them to ignore it.” I gestured to our haul. “After you.”
Drystan lifted two of the pails, shaking his head. “How your new husband will love you so.”
All smiles died from my lips.
Husband. The word echoed painfully through my mind. I’m not ready.
Even if sixteen was a perfectly average age to marry in Wales—the exact age Mama and Papa wed—but that didn’t mean it’s what I wanted. What I’d dreamed of, what I’d planned.
My face fell. Did I have plans? Dreams? As much as I liked to think so, freedom wasn’t a gift often given to girls. I’d heard that in some places in the world, women weren't even allowed to speak unless their men gave them permission. How prehistoric. They’d have to cut my tongue out. I subconsciously ran my tongue across the back of my teeth and shuddered.
Drystan sensed my dimming mood and hustled off with the snails.
I picked a kitchen knife off the bench that sat beside the empty buckets from yesterday’s catch. We’d been digging snails for a week, and still, the flats were full of the beasts. Local legend tells that they grew from the dirt like the undead, but instead of fangs and claws, they used slime as their weapon.
Twirling the blade between my fingers to calm myself, I stared into the hearth at the room’s center, the flames more than happy to share their warmth as they danced.
All this bustle, all these people. They’d turned Town Hall into a preparation room. Hauled in everything needed to bake, broil, sew, and clean—and I’m sure they hated every moment of it. Because of me, Lians would soon have a new overlord. If only I’d been born a boy, then this would be someone else’s problem.
Sniffing along the edge of the bench, a bony mouse crept toward the remaining snails, hoping to steal a meal.
I smiled at it. So sweet, so soft—just like the prince would be, according to the other girls in the village. Every time they saw me, they sniggered behind their hands. An oversized wolverine of a woman, they called me. It’s not that I’m ugly, per se, but I stood as tall—if not taller—than most men and nearly as strong from the farm work I’d done since I could walk. In a gown, I’d be a laughingstock.
I flicked my wrist, and the knife soared, lodging into the mouse’s neck—just as Drystan returned for more buckets. He yelped. “Lord above, Rhia!”
I yanked the blade out of the floorboard, picking up the mouse by its tail. I know someone that needs a hot meal. I gestured to the last of the buckets. “Get the rest of them into the wagon, then meet me outside. Hurry, before Mama and Papa come back.”
Drystan rolled his eyes. “So bossy, and you’re not even a princess yet. Give me a second.”
I just dipped my chin in response, hoping he didn’t see how much that comment unsettled me—princess. I’d rather be a cavern hag . . . or a spinster. Who am I kidding? They’re the same thing.
By the time we’d hiked home together, the rain had returned. First in a heavy mist, but it wasn’t long before it became a full-blown downpour. The mud deepened the further from the town’s center we walked, filling my boots and seeping between my toes.
Our hut was small—much too small to house four people. With only two rooms, we used one as a combined kitchen and dining area, and the other a bedroom we all shared, sleeping on separate straw mats.
Dripping wet, I peeled off my coat as I stepped inside, laying it over the back of our rickety wooden chair. My cheeks burned from the cold, and I patted them, hoping to get some sensation back into my fingers and face. Drystan wasn’t far behind.
I wandered into our bedroom, and as expected, my fat orange tabby—Jacc—lay sprawled over my mat.
“Jaccy,” I whispered in a sing-song voice, and he raised his head, whiskers rumpled from sleep. I dangled the mouse and whap—he clawed it from my fingers and hunched over the rodent, growling and spitting as if he’d caught the wretched thing himself. Gently, I stroked his back, careful not to bump his stiff, aging hindlegs.
Drystan leaned against the doorway, water dripping from his coat as heavily as it leaked through the holes in the roof. “We’re not going to have enough food to last the winter, you know. Especially not after this feast.”
I nodded slowly, ruffling Jacc’s fur.
“Maybe this prince can help.”
I snorted. “Well, if worse comes to worst, we can just eat him, I guess. Great idea.”
Drystan chuckled softly, then patted my shoulder. “Everything is going to be okay.”
I smirked. “You can marry him, then, if you’re so sure.”
“Rhia,” He exhaled, shaking his head as he walked away. From the sound of it, to stoke the coals in the fire. Jacc smeared the mouse’s blood on my pants as he crawled onto my lap. I kissed his soft head as he licked his paws clean.
If only I could stay here forever. Freeze this moment in time, so my future would never come, it fading away like a nightmare by dawn. By tomorrow night, I would no longer be Rhiannon Caddell, the mayor’s daughter. The wild child—flying as free as a dandelion seed on a summer breeze.
I would be a princess—a prince’s wife, and never had a thought disturbed me more.