The Corwallen Manor chapter you’ve all been waiting for!
Photo credit: Jun
Okay, so that tagline might be a wee bit presumptuous. Especially for those of you who didn’t even know that “The Curse of Corwallen Manor” is my current WIP. To make it worse, for any of you who are actually waiting for the chapter, I’m going to make you wait even longer. First, I want to say a few things about backstage scenes and teaser chapters. My chapter appears after that, I promise! (Feel free to skip straight to it if you are overwhelmed with desire; I would completely understand.)
In any story, a great deal happens backstage that never makes it into the final version— everything before the novel starts or between chapters which, as interesting as it might seem, is not absolutely necessary for the reader to know. However, as the author, sometimes I need to know what happened backstage to help me understand my characters better. And if I’m going to mention some aspect of that scene later, I want the whole thing in my head.
This happened recently while working on Corwallen Manor. Logically, at some point the characters must have decided to move to the cursed manor. I’m not including that scene in the novel, because it would slow things down early on. But I realized I needed to know what attitudes everyone had back then, to understand how they’ll respond when things get bad.
(Not much of a spoiler: it’s a cursed manor, things get bad. Bwa-ha-ha!)
So I started out writing the backstage scene. just for me.
Here’s the bonus. You’ve probably seen “teaser chapters” before–the chapter at the end of a book to tempt you toward the next book in the series, or a prologue posted on a publisher’s website. Great idea! I want to tease my readers too.
How can I get in on that?
Should I post a chapter or two myself? Well, I could probably get away with it. But then, I’ve heard horror stories about publishers who consider anything posted on blogs to be “already published” — uh oh! — and I don’t want to burn any bridges.
Hey wait, a backstage scene won’t be in my book. Ta-da! In theory I can lure my victims— I mean, entice my readers with glimpses of my writing style, characters, and setting, without risking clashes with future publishers.
Some things I kept in mind with my teaser-backstage chapter: I was careful not to give away any big secrets, or worse, include information readers would need to understand the novel. Since I need to introduce the characters, some repetition with the novel is unavoidable, but I tried to keep overlap to a minimum. Once the novel is published, I hoped this would give interesting “extra” insights for someone who’s already read it, as well as appealing to those who haven’t read it yet.
Did you notice that optimistic “yet”? Because it’s only a matter of time!
Now, as promised, I hope you enjoy this teaser chapter for “The Curse of Corwallen Manor”!
An Inherited Hazard
Linsalla smoothed the parchment document, centering it on the wide desk. She stared at it, unfocused, as though an alternate interpretation might bubble up from its squiggly script. The contract was unusually detailed for an inheritance, especially for those notoriously vague Layorans. Yet she noticed it failed to include certain terms the notary had mentioned, such as “haunted,” “cursed,” and “unexplained incidents.” Three years ago, she would have never even considered this offer. What could have tempted her to abandon her life here, go to that backwards country, and move into an apparent deathtrap?
But back then she had been newly married, managing her own household while her father managed this one, advancing rapidly at the Guild, respected by other nobles
She had substantially less life to abandon now.
In every corner of her mother’s old study, she noticed the absences. The gaps, of pieces sold, of memories missing. The servants rearranged, brought furniture and art from elsewhere in the manor, so that visitors would see a full room. Mismatched, it screamed to her. Mismanaged, her conscience replied.
A hot, dry breeze limped in the window. Sickly sweet flowers on the neighbors’ trees failed to mask the sweat and decay of the city, not far beyond the manor walls. Perhaps the world had always been this rotten, and she only now noticed.
Even closed, her father’s ledger book leered at her ominously. She ran her fingers over the leather cover, familiar with each wrinkle. If only one of her spells could change the numbers on these pages. Or better yet, take her back in time, give her a second chance to prevent the disaster that destroyed her family. But no wizard had that power.
As it was, she teetered only a few ledger entries away from utter destitution. Her father used to say that bravery was forged in desperation. She wondered how hot that forge needed to be, and whether she would melt before reaping its reward.
Most of her father’s servants had left after the scandal, or later, when the extent of his debts emerged. The last of the elders, as she thought of them, left when he died. Their loyalty to the father had not extended to the daughter. Only three servants, not much older than her, had stayed on–and remained still, despite not being paid in several months.
Muffled voices in the hall told Linsalla they were waiting. She straightened her mourning hood and collar. She regretted how the gray dulled her light skin, making her look even more pallid, but then, grief wasn’t supposed to be pretty. At least in Layor, she would no longer be the palest person in the room, or mistaken for a peasant because of it.
Taking a deep breath, Linsalla stretched her neck, imagining herself taller, more authoritative. Her mother’s raised chair helped, but she wished it were higher. It was hard enough giving orders to servants she’d played with as a child, whose shoulders she’d cried on, without having them tower over her too.
She called for them.
Sellinae and Esraen came in huddled together and whispering. Sellinae’s voice rose to normal, revealing a nervous waver. “I said, she wouldn’t tell me!” They sat in adjacent chairs, gripping the other’s hand. Facing Linsalla, Selliane raised one dark eyebrow. “I suppose we’ll both find out now.”
“Yes, once we–” Linsalla stopped when Tor appeared. He nodded formally to her, not meeting her eye, before folding his long legs down onto the last seat. He leaned forward on his elbows, his shoulders hunched.
The three servants had their dark hair tied up, out of the way for working. They no longer wore mourning for their late master, but their tunics and leggings were somber, with minimal decoration.
Pinny and Hallen weren’t coming. This was a discussion for adults.
No, not a discussion, she reminded herself. She led this household now. She had to be firm. It was an announcement.
Linsalla cleared her throat. “The notary who came earlier informed me that a distant cousin of mine has died. I have inherited his title and property in Layor.”
Sellinae sighed with relief and Esraen laughed. When they saw her expression, their smiles collapsed. Tor eyed her warily.
“It is not as simple as it sounds.” Linsalla launched into her prepared speech, outlining the basics, downplaying the risks to herself, focusing on the dangers to them. Leaping from one sentence to the next without pause, she gave them no opportunity to interject until she had finished her argument. Finally nearing the end, she slowed her pace. “There’s really only one suitable solution. I will go alone–”
Sellinae started to speak but Linsalla cleared her throat.
“–at first. I’ll work everything out with the curse, and then I’ll send for you.” It sounded so naïve, spoken out loud. Yes, she’ll simply work out the curse. Somehow. Despite the fact that all the previous heirs had failed to figure out what was wrong, failed to stop the deaths. And yet, that was the best plan she had. That was why she couldn’t bring her friends. She couldn’t have another death on her conscience.
“Curse? I thought you said it was haunted.” Sellinae always caught things like that.
Linsalla’s lip twitched before she could stop it. “According to the notary, they’re not sure.”
“So you don’t even know what’s happening, but you’re going to just ‘work it out,’ all by yourself?” Sellinae’s voice rose with every utterance.
Esraen patted his wife’s arm, his reassuring smile battling his pinched eyebrows. “If anyone can do it, Linsalla can. I’m sure of it.”
Linsalla wished she shared his confidence. “They aren’t my specialty, I’ll admit–either undead or curses. I have read about them, of course, and attended relevant lectures at the Guild. Several, actually. I know certain spells that should be useful.” She worried she was babbling, and forced herself to speak more calmly. “None of the incidents happened in the first few months for the earlier heirs, so I should have some time. It might be quite simple, given a deliberate, reasoned approach. Being Layor, it’s likely that no other wizards have even tried.”
Esraen’s eyebrows clenched further. “Why not?”
Sellinae growled. “Because they don’t like wizards in Layor. Another good reason for Linsalla not to go, or at least not to go alone among those foreigners.”
Esraen gasped. “So you can’t even do magic there?”
That posed a substantial problem, indeed. Linsalla winced. “Not openly, no.” Although after being expelled from the Guild, she couldn’t do magic here either. It was so humiliating, being the head of a household, with no way to support it. “However, I’ll have privacy within the manor itself. I should be able to protect myself adequately while I investigate the situation.” She hoped. Every time she said it, it sounded less logical.
Sellinae’s gestures grew increasingly animated. “But who will help you? You’ll need a manorkeep, and a landskeep, and a cook, at the minimum. Even with the five of us, we can barely keep up here.”
Could barely keep up in the past, perhaps. Now that she’d sold off most of the land and there were fewer to cook and clean for, the servants’ hands were idle half the day. They tried taking odd-jobs elsewhere, but the scandal tainted them as well. “I’m sure the manor already has a basic staff. That will have to do.”
“So you trust the locals more than you trust us?”
Linsalla sighed. “No, of course not.” Still, she couldn’t risk her friends’ lives. Would she risk strangers’ lives instead, then? That sounded no better. Perhaps she could do without staff, at least at first.
Sellinae squeezed her hands into fists. “You can’t depend on some Layoran hire-bodies. They’ll run at the first sign of trouble. You’ll just be some weird heathen to them. They’ll betray you as soon as your back is turned. You know how they are.”
Linsalla clicked her tongue sternly. “Be careful, Sellinae. Those are my mother’s people that you are disparaging.”
Esraen chimed in, calmly, as he often did when his wife got too hot. “Well, we’re your people, Linsalla. You can’t abandon us like this.”
“I’m not abandoning you, I’m trying to protect you! When it’s safe, I’ll send for you, I promise.”
Sellinae shook her hand rapidly, as she often did while thinking through a problem, then suddenly pointed at Linsalla. “Why don’t you go collect the inheritance, and then come back and manage that manor from here?”
Linsalla sighed. “I wish I could. Unfortunately, it seems we weren’t the first to have that idea. The contract makes it absolutely clear. The inheritance requires me to perform all the duties of the vaku title, on site. I can’t leave for longer than a week at a time for the first year, or I forfeit the title.”
“What if some of us go, and send back coin to support those who stay back here?”
Linsalla shook her head. “The contract directly stipulates against it. The wealth is tied tightly to the property.” Given the rumors about the manor, that stipulation was probably the only thing preventing it from being stripped to its bare walls several heirs ago.
Sellinae opened her mouth, then closed it.
When Tor spoke from his silent corner, they all turned. “Don’t go. It’s too dangerous.”
Esraen huffed. “Not accept the inheritance? But she deserves it.”
Beside him, Sellinae grimaced. “She can’t not accept it. We need the money.”
Linsalla watched them discussing her future as though she wasn’t even there.
Tor dug in. “If she goes, I go.” He crossed his arms to emphasize his final statement on the matter.
Linsalla narrowed her eyes at him, but he wasn’t watching. Playing the protective older brother again. At another time, in another mood, she might admit that a protective older anything would be a boon in her current circumstance, but not today. She made her voice as resolute as she could, channeling her mother. “No. I go ahead alone.”
Tor scowled. “It’s a long journey to Ashubi. Over the mountains, too. You’ll need to hire a good team of guards.”
Sellinae listed more items on her fingers. “And a cart, and warmer clothes, and food for the journey, and lodging along the way.”
Linsalla sniffed. “It will be difficult, yes. I will manage.”
“How?” Sellinae jumped from her seat and reached for the ledger book on the desk.
Linsalla put her hand on it, her eyes shooting a warning.
Sellinae pulled back, still hovering near the desk. “Don’t try to fool your manorkeep. I know the books as well as you. You can’t afford that journey, not with having to support us here for, what, a few months? A year? You’d have to sell this manor, and where would we go? We’d have to leave the city to get other jobs.”
Linsalla stared at the ledger book, chastising herself for letting the conversation get this far, get this close to the part she had hoped to keep secret.
“Linsalla, what are you planning?” Sellinae leaned closer, her voice suspicious. “This involves us too. We deserve to know.”
Her head down, Linsalla listened to the others’ silence, imagining them waiting, imagining how they might react. But Sellinae was right. They deserved to know the whole truth, especially if it went bad. “There is something I could do, if necessary. A certain commission.”
Sellinae spurted. “A commission? Why didn’t you—” Her cheeks paled. “Wait, for who?”
Linsalla’s voice sounded small, weak. “For a friend of Pankato’s.” When the man had first suggested it, shortly after her husband’s funeral, she’d dismissed it immediately. But extreme times called for extreme responses.
His cough obscuring his wife’s curse, Esraen took a more measured tone. “No offense to your husband, my lady–” They all stroked their forearms in the sign of respect for the dead. “–but aren’t his friends the reason you’re in so much trouble now?”
Tor snarled. “Which friend?”
Linsalla pressed her lips shut, knowing he would not like her answer.
Tor shifted forward on his seat, barely still perched, ready to pounce. “It’s Kallanel, isn’t it? You can’t trust him, Linsalla. You know that.”
Linsalla turned away, wondering what else her face betrayed.
Sellinae snorted. “It’s worse than that, Tor. If Kallanel is paying enough to make this work, he’s not just asking her to cast against the Guild’s orders. He’s asking her to cast an illegal spell.”
The other two protested, adding their concerned mumbles to Sellinae’s.
Linsalla’s face burned. How easily she let herself slide into base criminality. Whatever they thought of her, she deserved it. Her excuses sounded weak even to her own ears. “It will only be the one time. Then I’ll have enough to make the journey.”
Tor shook his head. “Once he has evidence you broke the law once, he’ll threaten you until you do it again.” His eyes grabbed hers. “Don’t do it. Please.”
Esraen joined the fray. ” Linsalla, you’re the smartest person I know.” He winced apologetically to his wife. “But this is idiotic. Do you really think we would let you risk everything like this, just so we can stay here while you go off to face some curse by yourself? Seriously, what do you think of us?”
She thought they were the only people in the world worth doing this for. She would risk herself, yes, but not them. Linsalla pulled herself up, pushed out her chin. “I think I’m the Daroen of this manor and that when I make an announcement, my servants should listen to me.”
“Bah!” Esraen spat.
Tor stood, straight as a soldier. “I will kill him. I will kill Kallanel before I let you do this.”
Sellinae reached over and smacked his arm hard enough that he stepped back. “Now you’re the one being an idiot, Tor. Nobody’s killing anybody. Here’s the new plan. We sell everything now and go to Layor together. The manor itself is so lien-laden that we’ll get little, but the rest should earn us enough.”
Esraen stood to join the other two. “Yes, we all go together. I can’t stand the thought of you being there and not knowing how you are.”
The prospect terrified Linsalla, too. If something happened here, how quickly would she find out? But, no. She’d done enough damage to this household. Taking them to a haunted manor where so many people had already died mysteriously–she couldn’t stomach the idea.
She had to do this alone. Even if it meant losing them.
“No. You are not coming with me. Better that you go work for another family and I never see you again. I would rather know you’re safe somewhere else than risk any of your lives on my account.”
For a moment, it took all her effort not to retch at that idea. The others stared, mouths agape.
Linsalla turned to Tor. “What about Hallen? You might feel ready to face whatever danger that place holds, but will you expose your nephew to it?”
Doubt flashed across Tor’s face. He glanced at the other two. “Could he stay with you? He’d be safe here.”
Esraen shook his head. “The boy needs you, Tor. He’s had too many homes already. Besides, we’re coming too.”
Tor pushed out his jaw and faced Linsalla. “He comes with me.”
Her next question was as obvious as it was harsh. “And you would bring Pinny? The curse has taken children before.” Surely they wouldn’t. The girl was so young.
Esraen spoke over his wife’s grumbling, taking her hand in his. “Life is risky. Whatever we face, our daughter is better off with us. Anyway, it won’t be that dangerous, because you’ll be there, Linny. And we believe in you.”
Sellinae seemed less convinced, but nodded.
“And it won’t be for long. As you said, you’ll solve this curse thing, and satisfy the requirements of the contract, and then we can all come back.” Esraen beamed, looking pleased with his proposed solution.
“No, we can’t… There’s no coming back. Not for me, at least. That’s why you–” Linsalla slammed her hands on the desk and stood, choking back her frustration. “I have to go. I’ve run out of ways to pay the debtors here. This might be my last chance. But you should stay here. You three, and Pinny, and Hallen. I can’t keep you safe if you come. I can’t protect you.”
Tor’s eyes flashed. “And who will protect you?”
Linsalla bristled. “I will.” That came out too harshly. She lowered her voice. “I’m sorry, but this is the only way. It is not the ideal solution, granted, but I will make it work. I’ll send for you as soon as I can.” She scanned them for reaction, not finding the agreement she hoped for. Setting her face as firmly as she could, she did her best impression of her father. “I really must insist.”
Sellinae glared but said nothing. Esraen chewed his cheek and studied his wife. Tor stared at the floor, his mouth a thin line.
Was it done? They didn’t seem ready to give in, but maybe they had indeed accepted her logic. “We’re settled then?”
The others exchanged glances she wasn’t sure how to interpret. After a while, all three nodded at each other, and then at her.
Sellinae spoke for them. “We’re settled.”
Their expressions did not look conciliatory, raising Linsalla’s suspicions. “You are, are you?”
Esraen moved around the desk and knelt, bringing his face down to her level, his hand on the arm of her chair. His voice was warm, soft. “Linsalla, look. You can insist all you want, but we aren’t letting you face this alone. All we have is each other, now.” He grinned. “You could try to fire us, but we wouldn’t believe you.”
Linsalla placed her hand over his, and he squeezed it. The sensation flooded through her, reminding her how long she had gone without human contact. Her intense determination dissipated. She had been dreading the idea of going alone, even sure that it was the right thing. A smirk crept across her lips. “Then by ‘settled,’ you meant…?”
Esraen nodded. His smile twinkled all the way to his eyes. “So, when do we leave?”