Ever since she can remember, 18-year-old Gisela Winry has wanted to dance. Her strict father sees dancing as the path to immorality, licentiousness and debauchery.
Devastated at his wrath after she secretly auditions and wins the title Harvest Queen of Ylvaton, Gisela turns to her best friend, Hilarion, who proposes a path she cannot take.
With their friendship broken, Hilarion retreats to the solace of the forest where he lets his hatred and jealousy fester.
Meanwhile, Gisela meets Vincent, a young nobleman seeking to escape his dead brother’s shadow. Will Gisela be able to uphold her family honour and get to do the one thing she’s always been passionate about? Will Vincent’s chance encounter with the lovely harvest queen from a tiny village become more meaningful than earning his father’s approval? And will Hilarion fight for the love of his life or give in to the darkness within him?
Immerse yourself in the life of the common people of Vendale in this prequel to The Siblings’ Tale. Gisela’s Passion is the retelling of a lesser-known Slavic folk tale, which is better known in its incarnation as a French ballet.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 4 – R Rated
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Giselle is my favourite ballet and when I came across the original Slavic folktale, I just fell in love with it all over again. When I finished writing my first fairytale retelling, I was wondering what more I could do with the world and had the inspiration to write a retelling of Giselle because it somehow, magically fit into the plot I'd already written for The Siblings' Tale.
Gisela's Passion developed into the prequel for The Siblings' Tale and this connection is made even clearer in the treasure hunt freebie, "Vincent's Dream" that's accessible in the ebook of Gisela's Passion.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I developed my characters for this book based on what I as a modern woman wanted to engage with based on the original plot of the story. The folktale is about a love triangle and I wanted to take a closer look at why Hilarion was so jealous of Giselle lavishing her attentions on another. I've also always had more male than female friends and I wondered if any had felt like I'd put them in the friend zone and what that might be like. Hilarion's character developed out of these musings, while Gisela evolved from my desire to show what happens to us when we don't follow our hearts. We are constantly faced with the decision to follow our dreams or stick with "what's reasonable" but staying stuck in our conditions and shutting off our hearts kills us a little inside every time we do it. Gisela's character is an exploration of this and how our mindsets and thoughts guide our actions.
Vincent stepped through the tall, carved, wooden doors into his father’s extravagant apartments. As a child, he had only ever been summoned to this place after doing something to warrant his father’s disapproval. Vincent’s eyes flicked to the band of carved panels, each one an intricate, artistic rendering of some past king and his glorious achievements. His shoulders slumped, and as on many occasions before, Vincent wondered what he could ever do to match up to his ancestors in his father’s eyes.
Vincent squared his shoulders. I am a man now, he thought as an irritable furrow settled between his eyebrows. A movement called upon his attention. From the corner of his eye, Vincent’s gaze met the sight of his rotund progenitor, standing with arms outstretched, while a tailor made adjustments to a fine crimson and gold brocade suit.
A pair of hard, brown eyes glanced up at him, but his father said nothing, and Vincent knew to be patient. He waited, hands behind his back, shoulders hunched and head bowed while the tailor finished his work. Even when the tailor packed shimmering fabrics away in a large suitcase, folding everything with tender care, the stern, older man with grey streaks highlighting his short, pitch-black hair, continued to admire the workmanship of the robe his valet slipped over his shoulders. Only after the tailor left did Vincent’s father turn towards his son, a disapproving look twitching his greying eyebrows together. Vincent felt his father’s piercing, judgemental stare at Vincent’s less ostentatious outfit. He squirmed with his left foot, driving the tip of his boot into the soft carpet.
“So, you are determined on this hunting excursion of yours.” His father stated, turning back to the full-length mirror behind him, a deep gully marring his brow.
Vincent nodded. “Yes, Father. The party leaves within the hour.”
His father shook his head, turning back to his son. Vincent observed a look of incomprehension settle over the aging man’s features. “I do not understand why you have chosen this waste of your time and energies, but you insist it must be done, and I have no reason to object outright.” Vincent’s muscles bunched above his nose and his hands balled into fists, but his father continued, unperturbed, “Just take your safety seriously. You know how your mother worries. You should honestly take her health into consideration.”
“What will it take to please you, Father?” the resentment in Vincent’s voice was unmistakable. “When I stay in the library, studying, you find I am too passive. When I walk in the park, I am too frivolous. When I go out hunting, I am wasting my time. What would please you? Is there anything I could do to keep you happy?”
A dismissive hand silenced Vincent’s outburst. “Go. Do what pleases you. It is all you ever do anyway. Begone with you and see to your safe return.”
Vincent turned on his heel with the first word of his father’s dismissal. In his anger, he did not notice the wry tone of his father’s voice, or the indication of concern that lingered in his deep brown eyes. Vincent marched out and paused. Tall doors swung closed behind him with a thud. He took a deep breath, but it did not calm him enough to relax his fists. His jaw clenching, Vincent strode along the carpeted hallway until reaching the main entrance.
Why does he always do that? Can he look at me? He never gives me any opportunity to explain anything. If he knew the real reason for this excursion, he’d never let me go, but why must I lie to him? He just assumes he knows everything. I wish he’d just listen, sometimes. This is all so infuriating!
Vincent still fought to compose himself by the time he stepped out through the main doors and down a series of low stairs, but his heart lifted ever so slightly at the sight of his friends who mounted up in response to his arrival. His page boy, held out the reins to him, and Vincent took them before stroking the soft muzzle of his grey stallion. The elegant creature lowered his head, and gently butted Vincent’s shoulder. Unable to hold onto his anger longer, Vincent’s lips twitched and a glint returned to his eyes.
As he grabbed onto the pommel of the saddle, a woman’s voice called out from behind him, “Vincent, aren’t you going to bid me farewell?”
Vincent returned his foot, which he’d raised to the stirrup, back to the ground with a sigh. He turned to face the slender woman in her fifties who approached him, her elaborate gown trailing a train behind her. She sailed over to him and pecked him on the cheek before adding, “Must you go so plainly dressed, dear? At least you should be clothed befitting your station if you’re going to go through with this harebrained idea of a hunting trip.”
His teeth bit down on his lower lip as he thought, not her, too. Out loud, he said, “Mother, I am dressed in well-tailored, finely woven garments fit for any nobleman. I have my trusty sword,” he patted a decorated scabbard which hung from his right hip, “and good old Haldir.” Vincent said the last with reverence as he stroked the neck of his patient steed.
Her voice rose, worry creasing the corners of her eyes, “But Vincent, is it safe? That brute is far from trustworthy!” The look she sent the horse had the creature pawing the ground and Vincent had to calm him with a gentle whisper and more stroking on the powerful neck. Then Vincent turned to face his mother, kissed her lightly on her cheek and swung into his saddle with a mighty effort, barely clearing the saddle in his agitation. The short sword hanging from his hip made coordination difficult and he cursed it silently, wondering whether it was even a good idea to take such a thing with him. He shoved it into the right position so it would not bother him further and his fingers ran over the familiar relief of a rampant stag on the hilt.
Scowling, he gathered the reins, and then his eyes fell on two young women who stood to one side of the open courtyard, one of them stifling a giggle behind her hand. He gazed upon her curvaceous form. Tendrils of her raven hair floated about her face in the caress from a light breeze. She lowered her hand and mouthed, “I believe in you.”
Vincent nodded to his cousin and his lips twitched into a lopsided smile. Then he saw the disapproving look the other young woman sent him as she glanced from her friend back to him. Her face was serious, her stance regal, and Vincent felt the iciness of her gaze. He looked between the two once more, noting the difference. Madeleine, his cousin, encouraging and waving brightly; Catherine, disapproving, a reminder of everything he was not. Catherine, he thought. Albert’s intended. No, not any more. She has become—he cut off the thought, whirling his horse and trotting over the cobblestones in a clatter of hooves, followed by the thunder of twenty more horses as his retinue went after him. Vincent did not spare a backward glance for his mother or the two young women with her. He looked ahead, thanking his luck for a beautiful azure sky and the freedom to do as he pleased for the coming weeks, irrespective of what his parents thought of the matter.
Gisela glanced over her shoulder. All was quiet around the wooden farmhouse, nestled amongst the foothills with the tall, grey peaks forming their ever-present backdrop. Gentle, summer sunlight streamed through a cloud bank, bathing the moss-covered shingles in golden light. A lamb bleated in the distance, and Gisela heard the snort of a horse from the paddock beside the barn. There were no people in sight. She scanned the homestead a second time, just to be certain and breathed a sigh of relief.
Becoming aware of her furtiveness, Gisela steeled herself. Her head whipped forward, a little furrow appearing above the bridge of her nose. She pulled a thick, knitted cardigan about her frame and strode into the lane. A hornbeam hedge shielded her from view, and Gisela allowed a second sigh to escape her lips. A mixture of excitement and guilt coursed through her, bringing indecision. She glanced down and her eye caught sight of the radiant, crimson skirt which flared in time to her step. It was then excitement won out.
She smiled as she turned her attention to the beauty of the afternoon; birds flitted about in the hedge and further afield, trilling their sweet melodies. The lazy buzz of insects droned through the air. Gisela took a deep breath, stretching her arms to encompass all she saw. Her pace slowed while she revelled in her freedom. Excitement at the prospect of her afternoon rushed through her. She suppressed the twinge of guilt by saying to herself, “This is what I want, more than anything. By the Almighty, no one should be allowed to smother my dreams.”
Then, she clapped her hands as a giggle escaped her. Even her legs could not suppress her enthusiasm and Gisela skipped a few steps before composing herself again. She glanced down at the skirt once more. Bright, red cotton, finely woven—her finger brushed it with a gentle caress. It’s so beautiful, she thought as she gazed upon the bands of white and blue ribbon and lace she had spent hours sewing onto the lower third of the garment. Gisela dragged her attention away from the skirt and glanced instead at the sun, gauging the time from its position. She bit her lower lip, setting off at a brisk trot, a satchel bouncing against her back with every step. Durable, brown leather boots thudded on the compacted surface of the lane.
Still running, Gisela came over a rise and a row of brick houses came into sight. She slowed to a walk once she crested the elevation, her chest rising and falling in rapid succession. She shook her head, allowing the two long, thick braids of coal-black hair to whip about her. Her purpose was firm now. There was no going back anyway. My dream, she thought. I can do this. I must do this. The gods are with me. I cannot let it all go to waste. I will do this. In response, Gisela’s stomach clenched as her conscience surfaced the image of her stern father, his dark eyes flashing with disapproval. Gisela took another deep breath, banishing the thought and adding aloud, “He will be proud of me—in the end.”
“Gisela!” a gruff voice called out from under one of the poplar trees which lined the road on the outskirts of the village.
Her head whipped up, eyes fixing on the owner of the voice, her heart pounding louder even than when she had been running. Deep in thought, she hadn’t even noticed the man leaning against the tree trunk. Gisela swallowed hard. Her hands balled into fists as the man stepped forward, out of the shade.
He was short, with a broad-brimmed leather hat on his head. He raised his face to better see her, showing off the most prominent feature of his visage: his nose. It was impossible to look at anything else. The bulbous proboscis overshadowed thin lips and in conjunction with the brim of the hat, hid small, dark eyes from view. He wore thick leather garments and carried a double-barrelled rifle slung over his left shoulder.
“What are you doing away from the vineyards at this hour? Your father will be looking for you,” he said, a glint of mischief in his obscured eyes.
“Oh, Hilarion! It’s only you,” Gisela exclaimed, elated, a smile lighting up her face. “What do you think?” she asked, twirling as she stepped forward, allowing the skirt to billow out. The crimson tint was eye-catching.
His face sincere, but laced with a hint of hunger, Hilarion said, “You look beautiful.”
She laughed and turned towards the row of ochre houses, taking Hilarion by the hand and tugging him forward. Her exuberance was infectious, and he responded with a laugh of his own.
They walked in companionable silence for a bit, observing the activity in the street before Hilarion said, his tone serious, “Gisela, are you certain this is a good idea? I cannot begin to imagine what your father will have to say about this if he finds out.”
“Please,” she huffed, “can we forget about him for a moment. I’m here now, the ‘damage’, whatever that may be, is done. I just want to make the most of this one, most exciting day of my life. Can you give me that, at least? Nothing more is going to come of it. It’s not like I’ll get chosen anyway, I’m too old.”
Hilarion nodded and shrugged when she turned her attention towards the village green where a large crowd gathered. People were jostling to get a better view of a small, raised stage which had been erected on one end of the field, nearest the town hall.
All thoughts of her father dissipated at the sight of the crowd and Gisela’s heart skipped a beat when the onlookers took note of her and her skirt with the ribbon and lace trimmings. She stepped forward, and the crowd parted before her. She strode towards the raised, wooden platform, her head high, all other thoughts forgotten.
Hilarion watched the crowd part for Gisela, and then close in behind her. She was lost from view, and he considered pushing his way through the throng of people to better see the stage, but then his face lit up, stars shimmering in his eyes hidden beneath his hat. He turned and rushed towards a two-storey, brick building which stood at the edge of the green. A weather-stained sign hung above the doorway, and upon it was painted the image of a yellow hog with a green apple in its mouth. “The Golden Boar”, the sign proclaimed in bold lettering.
Hilarion waved to the innkeeper’s wife, a woman of middling age, her dark tresses wound up in a tight bun behind her head. She wore a bright white apron over her brown dress and stood watching the commotion on the green from the inn’s doorway. She nodded towards Hilarion; then she motioned up and inward with her head. Hilarion smiled at her and nodded his thanks before rushing inside and up the stairway, taking two at a time. Hilarion came out into the sleeping hall and crossed over to the opposite wall where he leaned his rifle beside a window. Then he sat down on the window ledge, swinging his short legs over the side, so he was better able to watch the spectacle on the stage below. He grinned, his body lightening as he took a deep breath. He had found the best vantage point the village had to offer.
After a moment of gazing at the throng of people below him, Hilarion picked out Gisela on the stage. She had removed her thick, grey cardigan, and Hilarion gasped at the intricate embroidery the bodice of her dress revealed. He marvelled at the hours of work she must have put in to create the beautiful gown she wore. It reminded him of a time, many years before, when he had attended the annual harvest festival and met a young girl, so short she could not see the dancers performing the harvest dance. He found her weeping with frustration as she craned her neck, only to be jostled by some spectator who didn’t see the little ten-year-old at their feet. Hilarion had crouched down and offered her a ride on his shoulders. Although he was short, it had given her enough height to view the performance she so ardently wished to see.
Now, as Hilarion looked down onto the scene before him. Eight young women stood ready on the stage, their different coloured skirts still—the calm before the storm. His gaze fell upon Gisela, whose red skirt drew the eye to her. Even at that distance, Hilarion sensed the radiance emanating from her. Her hair was loose, and her charcoal tresses reached below her waist. Hilarion’s mouth gaped at her beauty. Was this really the little girl he held up on his shoulders eight years before? He could hardly fathom the change she’d undergone. He had, certainly, taken note of her transformation from little girl to young woman, but in that moment, as she stood poised, waiting for the music to begin, the changes struck home an arrow, straight to his heart. Gisela was beautiful, and he could not deny his love for her any longer.
Hilarion saw the accordion move in the player’s hands before he heard the first strains of the music. In bemusement, he watched that split second where the musician was playing and the dancers started moving before the sound reached him. It added a sense of otherworldliness to the scene, and he revelled in Gisela’s perfection. Her arms rose above her head in a smooth motion, fierce and powerful, then one arm gathered up her skirts and began the characteristic twirling of the fabric while her feet tapped out a series of steps. Everything about her dance drew Hilarion in deeper. He had eyes for her alone as she whirled and swung across the stage, her skirts billowing out from her waist, an undulating ocean of crimson fabric with its splashes of white and blue from the trimmings.
Hilarion forgot all else. Gisela’s raw talent became his whole world. Everything around her faded; the other dancers, the crowd of people. All paled into insignificance before the majesty of Gisela’s dancing. He did not notice the other spectators holding their breath as he did, all eyes transfixed by the whirling red. He barely heard the music, notes of a familiar folk melody, which most would hum along with under normal circumstances; but on this day, one could have heard a pin drop. Everyone, the whole village and any bystanders from nearby farms come to support their family’s dancer, all fell into Gisela’s trance.
Then silence fell as the final notes of the melody dissipated. The motion of the dancers, too, stopped. Hilarion became aware of himself again. He took a breath, conscious for the first time in many minutes of this habitual act, and noticing he had held it in. How long? He thought. He shook his head as though waking from a dream. Every fibre in his body was tense. Hilarion leaned back, relaxing his arms and shoulders in a deliberate motion before swinging around again.
An urgency took hold of him. He heard the crowd break the silence, bursting into a jubilant cheer. Hilarion raced down the stairs, out the inn door and across the open space towards the stage. Arriving at the back of the delighted crowd, he began pushing his way forward. All civility forgotten, he shoved his way through, using his elbows wherever necessary. As he forced his way through the throng of spectators, he heard a woman announce, “Miss Gisela Winry wins the honour of representing the village of Ylvaton at the Annual Harvest Festival. She will dance as Harvest Queen.”
Hilarion sucked in his breath. She had done it. She really had achieved her dream. He made it to the elevated, wooden platform just as the group of dancers separated; he saw several faces heavy with disappointment, but Gisela—Gisela was radiant. Her smile was a ray of sunshine bestowed upon the crowd as she curtseyed low three times. Then she turned to a woman who stood beside the accordion player. Her hair was milky-white, but notwithstanding her advanced age, she was wiry and strong.
Hilarion recognised Mrs Smith, the dancing instructor. According to rumour, Mrs Smith had been the best dancer the village had ever produced. Many of the older inhabitants recounted her beauty and talent, and Hilarion wondered whether Gisela’s performance perhaps came close to that experience. He felt a growing understanding of what in previous years had only elicited a bemused shaking of his head. He observed old Mrs Smith taking Gisela by the shoulder as she spoke to the young woman. He saw Mrs Smith’s broad smile, and when Gisela bobbed her head and turned away, back towards him, Hilarion saw an uncharacteristic radiance emanating from her large doe eyes.
When the winsome woman noticed him, Hilarion’s heart skipped a beat at the glowing smile he received. Embarrassed by the unexpected flood of emotion, Hilarion broke contact, sweeping the group of other dancers as he did so, and he noticed something. Gisela was by far the oldest participant in the audition. He knew she had turned eighteen a few weeks before, but he was struck by the other girls’ adolescent faces. None of them could be older than sixteen. He saw awe in most of their eyes as they observed Gisela passing them. Hilarion noted a hint of jealousy in some of their faces.
Gisela’s elegant, new dancing shoes rapped on the boards of the stage as she strode towards him, and Hilarion looked up again, beaming at her.
“You were amazing,” he exclaimed, as she sat down at the edge of the stage and proceeded to unlace the dainty footwear.
She grinned at him, her hands still busy with her shoes, and winked. Then she returned her attention to her shoe, as though trying to suppress her pleasure at the compliment.
Unable to hold back his curiosity, Hilairon asked, “What did Mrs Smith say?”
She glowed, radiated warmth and energy at the memory. Her eyes closed, then sprung open again a second later as a smile spread over her face, igniting fires in her eyes. “She said,” Gisela paused for effect, “that I’ll be even greater than she was.”
Gisela finished tying the laces on her heavy boots and slipped the dancing shoes back into the brown satchel. Then she slipped it over her arms and onto her back. As she hopped off the stage, Gisela glanced at Hilarion again, and added, “She wants to give me private lessons.”
Hilarion paused, but Gisela walked off without looking back, thanking the bystanders who showered her with congratulations. Noticing he was falling behind, Hilarion set off after her, pushing past people once again. When they left the crowd behind, Hilarion saw Gisela make her way straight for the church, a small, white, wooden building set on the edge of the green. The elm-wood door stood open and she slipped inside. He chose to wait, not being fond of the place of worship which only reminded him of funerals.
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