Sunday, November 2, 2014

Virtual Book Tour ~ Elise's Choice by Rachel M. Stiber

Elise's Choice
by Rachel M. Stiber

Young Adult / Fantasy
Date Published: August 25, 2014

Elise and her best friend Anton grew up in the medieval village of Petheralm, where life, though hard, is good. When a stranger arrives in her village injured and unconscious, his handsome face and sweet demeanor take in Elise.

However, according to ancient legend, the forest surrounding their small town is enchanted, and any stranger unworthy to enter the village would be stopped there. The village is leery of this stranger and wants nothing more than for him to leave.

Elise pays no mind to the silly legend, and is shocked to discover that he’s no ordinary peasant as everyone first thought. Before the stranger is strong enough to leave Petheralm, she is forced to make a startling choice between following her dreams and following her heart. Although Elise feels strongly that she made the correct choice, the day soon comes when she and everyone she loves must deal with the repercussions of her choice.

        “Scorching flames burst from the dragon’s nostrils as the prince braced behind his shield,” I said, leaning closer to my young audience of two with my hands accenting my words. “Ignoring the deadly heat that enveloped him, the prince raised his sword and stood before the fair maiden. He never wavered as the scaly beast stalked toward him.
“‘I will kill you, oh, mighty prince,’ the dragon roared, its foul breath reeking of sulfur and its wings blotting out the sun.”
          Areya, the younger of the two, shrank as I stalked toward her with my hands up like claws. “What happened next, Elise?” she asked, hiding behind her brother.
          “The prince killed the dragon and rescued the maiden,” replied nine-year-old Kevel. “Stories always end like that.” He rolled his eyes as he spoke the words, trying to convince his sister that my story had not affected him. His reddened cheeks and wide eyes said otherwise.
I shook my head. “Not this one.”
          With knitted brows, they glanced at each other and then at me.
“What do you mean?” asked Kevel.
          “The prince couldn’t kill the dragon,” I said. “The dragon was too quick, too powerful, and too cunning. The prince fought bravely, slashing the dragon with his sword and leaping to dodge the beast’s blows, but he soon grew tired and staggered beneath the weight of his armor. He faltered. Sweating from the heat of battle and the dragon’s fire, he dropped his shield. Seizing the opportunity, the dragon’s chest swelled and his mouth opened. The prince perished in the flames.”
          “Wait a minute.” Areya raised a tiny finger. “The dragon won?”
“So it seemed,” I replied. “The dragon insisted that the maiden marry him. ‘I would rather die,’ she said. So, with another burst of flames, the dragon turned her to ash, too.”
          “That’s the strangest story you’ve ever told.” Kevel shook his head. “I’m not sure I like it.”
          I held up my hand. “But that isn’t the end. When the maiden’s ashes mingled with the prince’s, they joined to form a large stone that sang the sweetest love song anyone had ever heard. The dragon couldn’t bear to hear its loving notes. In his rage, he smote the stone with fire, claws, and tail, but the stone stood firm. With a final deafening roar, he spread his wings and fled. No one has seen him since.”
          “Is that why there aren’t any dragons?” asked Areya.
          I shrugged my shoulders. “It could be. I’ll bet somewhere in the Enchanted Forest we could find the singing stone.”
          “Will you help us find it?” Kevel asked.
“Someday.” I smiled sadly at my small audience. Two, when there used to be five.
I had been telling stories to my friends Anton and Carajil and all of Carajil’s siblings for as long as I could remember. It was our ritual. Every day when the weather and the chores allowed, we gathered in the meadow between our cottages, and I retold ancient legends or created legends of my own. I had captivated my audience with vivid descriptions and theatrics. However, the years had stolen most of my audience. Carajil’s older brother, Davin, had been the first to leave when he began herding sheep with their father and starting a family of his own. Anton soon followed when his father’s untimely passing left him with the responsibility of caring for his family’s farm and little time for my stories. Now with Carajil betrothed, she spent less time with us each week. Only Kevel and Areya eagerly sought my entertainment.
“Didn’t Carajil say she was going to join us today?” I asked.
Kevel shrugged his shoulders. “She was, but then Danith showed up with a basket of food. She went with him instead.”
Areya pursed her lips. “They went on a picnic without us.”
Danith, Carajil’s betrothed, was the blacksmith’s son and apprentice. With the spring planting in full force, he kept busy sharpening and repairing tools for the villagers. I could imagine Carajil’s delight when he surprised her with a picnic.
“I’m sure they’re making plans for the wedding.” I playfully elbowed Areya’s ribs. “You wouldn’t want to listen to that, now would you?”
She shook her head, tossing her tousled raven curls in every direction.
“Can you tell us another story?” Kevel asked.
“Not today,” I said with a giggle. “We’ll meet again tomorrow. Maybe Carajil will join us then.”
I watched them leave. Bounding, skipping, and giggling, they raced across the meadow. With a sigh, I reclined in the soft grass. The heady scent of heather filled the air. Draping my left arm across my forehead, I gazed upward. Fluffy white clouds floated lazily across the azure sky. My mind wandered like the carefree clouds. Had it only been three weeks since Carajil’s eighteenth birthday? It seemed much longer. Nearly everyone in Petheralm had attended the celebration. Not only had we celebrated a birthday, but also a betrothal. No words could describe the way Carajil’s eyes sparkled when Danith took her hand and announced his intentions.
          I rejoiced in my friend’s happiness and looked forward to her upcoming wedding, but my heart pulled me in a different direction. My dream lay not in the traditional path of marriage, but in storytelling. I longed to be a minstrel roaming from village to village and telling tales as tall as the mountains. Once I tired of traveling, I would return to Petheralm as a scribe, penning my own tales of dashing heroes who undertook daring quests.
I shook my head. Who was I kidding? Those were impossible choices for a maiden in Petheralm. I hid the dream within my heart, for if I shared it, everyone would laugh. Everyone except Anton. He understood.
Although a year older than Carajil and me, Anton completed our circle of friends. He was my closest and dearest friend, the only one who completely understood me. I shared everything with him, including my impossible dream. He always lent a listening ear and a shoulder to carry my tears. Regardless of how the world changed, I knew I could always count on him to be there for me.
Someone called my name, shaking me from my reverie. Mama.
“E-e-e-lise!” The breeze carried her voice across the meadow.
I slapped my forehead. She had sent me to collect the eggs. Shaking grass from my dress, I grabbed my empty basket and ran toward our thatched-roof cottage. She waited outside, her silver hair glistening in the sun.
“Where have you been, child?”
“The meadow,” I replied breathlessly. “I met Kevel and Areya, and . . .”
She wiped her hands on her apron. “The eggs?”
I sheepishly handed her the empty basket. “I’m sorry, Mama.” I did not make excuses, for she had heard them all.
She shook her head. “Elise, child, what am I going to do with you?”
I followed her inside our humble, two-room cottage. A hearth and a preparing table filled the right side of the main room. Papa’s handmade table with four chairs stood in the middle. My parents’ double bed and chest occupied the left side. The smaller room belonged to me. When I asked why he and Mama had given me the room instead of claiming it for themselves like Carajil and Anton’s parents, Papa tousled my hair and replied, “A maiden needs her privacy.”
But I knew the truth. Although they never complained, their aching backs made it difficult to sleep in a bed, and they spent most nights in the chairs. They had given me the room so they would not disturb me. Their thoughtfulness warmed my heart, but I worried about them more than they would ever know.
Mama placed the egg basket on the table and sat in one of the chairs. I took the chair across from her, my guiltiness warming my face.
“I’m sorry about the eggs. I got caught up in one of my stories, and forgot about them. I know it’s a lame excuse.”
She caressed my cheek with her work-worn hand. “You have a wonderful mind, child, but you’re going to have to learn to control yourself if you’re ever going to run your own household.”
“If only the animals listened as well as Kevel and Areya.”
Her deep, musical laugh shook her frail frame. “Then you would never get anything done.”
“I should collect the eggs.” I reached for the basket.
“Leave them to me. I need you to take this to Jorlene.” She handed me another basket containing a clay jar and a loaf of bread.
“Is she any better?”
Jorlene lived across the Lagone River deep in the forest. Her husband had died a couple years ago, leaving her childless and alone. Mama took responsibility for her well-being.
Mama shook her head. “Worse, I fear. I made a special broth to give her nourishment. Please don’t dawdle, child. I want you out of the forest before dark.”
“Of course, Mama.”
I skipped along the well-worn path that led across the wooden bridge to Jorlene’s cottage. The smell of honeysuckle sweetened the afternoon air. Mama’s warning rang in my ears. I would obey, but refused to hurry. With the longer spring evenings, I would be home long before dark.
 I paused, mesmerized by the surrounding scenery. Northward, the Somudon Mountains loomed tall and majestic, their dusky peaks silhouetted against the deep blue sky. The meadow with its lush carpet of heather and abundance of wildflowers beckoned me to stray from the path. I wanted to answer its call and run through it, stopping only when my legs grew too tired to carry me further. In the distance, the bridge stretched across the Lagone River, pointing the way into the forest. With a delighted sigh, I finally resumed my walk. Surely no place in all of Ogden compared to the splendor that surrounded me.
Stopping midway across the bridge, I gently dropped the basket, leaned over the splintered rails, and gazed into the clear water. A smallmouth bass rippled the water, its red eye gleaming in the sun. I envied its freedom.
Strands of unruly auburn hair escaped the braid I had carefully plaited earlier. I shook the braid loose and thoughtfully twirled a strand around my finger. There must be a way for me to fulfill my dream. Friar Hildric, the head of the council and a leader in our village, enjoyed my stories. Once I turned eighteen and entered womanhood, perhaps he would allow me to entertain the villagers with storytelling during feast days and celebrations.
The squeaking of wheels interrupted my thoughts. Anton emerged from the forest, struggling to pull a wheelbarrow.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” he said. “I need your help.”
As he came closer, I saw what, or actually who, made the wheelbarrow difficult to pull. A young man lay motionless in the wheelbarrow. Blood oozed through the rag tied around his head.  A makeshift splint constructed of sticks and rags held his right arm. Anton must have used his tunic as bandages, for it lacked a large section of its hem.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I found him,” Anton pointed to the young man, “lying at the edge of the forest as I searched for a runaway horse. He has a gash on his right temple, and his arm may be broken. I bandaged him as well as I could.”
His words sent chills up my spine. One of the ancient legends claimed the forest was enchanted and any stranger unworthy to enter the village would be stopped there. Thus, the villagers called it the Enchanted Forest. I loved to tell the story, but never truly believed it. Could the legend be true? Was the young man in the wheelbarrow unworthy to enter our village, and had the enchantment tried to stop him? I shook my head to clear it. He needed my help, not my superstitions. 

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About the Author 

Rachel Stiber lives in a small town in rural Missouri with her husband, three rambunctious cats, and a lovable dog. She has the privilege of teaching English Language Arts to seventh grade students at the local junior high.

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