The Storyteller’s Daughter – Victoria McCombs

If I could choose my Gift, I’d want it to be practical like making bread or shoes to provide for my struggling family. If I couldn’t have a practical Gift, then I’d want something extravagant that people would pay to see, and then I’d use the money to buy provisions so we’d never go hungry again. If the Gift wasn’t practical or brilliant, then it held little value in the eyes of the merry folk of Autumn Leaf Village. Futile, they said. There was no point in wishing for things I’d never have. The elder ladies gathered under the thick oak tree at the start of the day to whisper about the Gifts behind their large hats, and I caught snippets of their chatter when I heard my name roll from their tongues. Each carried their own tale passed down from their grandmothers of how the Gifts came to be: sometimes it was a foolish wizard, sometimes a sorceress in training, once it was a beggar girl who made a wish. Whatever way Westfallen stumbled into the Gifts was unknown for certain, but everyone had one. Every child born showed signs of a special talent that set them apart from each other. Everyone had a piece of magic in their souls. Everyone except me. Somehow, out of all the children born in Westfallen over the past hundred years, I was the first to be born Giftless, and while I didn’t know why my soul held no magic, I often wondered if it was because I was unworthy. The elder ladies seemed to think so. Without a Gift to guide me, most folks believed I’d spend the rest of my days working in my parents’ tavern. It wasn’t that I particularly disliked working here.

In fact, there were many things I loved about the Riverfront Tavern: the smell of Lolly’s cinnamon cakes, the warm glow from the two fires, the jovial laughter that could be heard from outside. But my favorite was when Papa got out his old barstool and leaned into it, and the whole tavern fell into a hush to hear his stories. Those were my favorite times. That was Papa’s Gift: storytelling, and he was the best storyteller Autumn Leaf Village had come by in years. He learned to talk before he was one year old and had been weaving mesmerizing tales ever since. After fifty years of storytelling, people said that his stories kept getting better each year, but they were wrong—his stories had always been this good. Years ago, numerous taverns thrived in Autumn Leaf Village. But times grew hard and people’s taste for such establishments dwindled, until now only two taverns remained— ours and Haystack Hallow, which sat out north behind the farms. Haystack Hallow was closer for many folks, but it didn’t have Papa’s stories. Mama stood tall as she served the customers, quick to tell any that my father was her husband.

It was her one true claim to fame: being married to Papa. Mama’s Gift wasn’t so special. She could turn any apple into a peach, but only on Saturdays. We’d eaten every dish with peaches imaginable, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I preferred apples. At least she had a Gift, though. I’d eat a million peaches if it meant I had a Gift. There was nothing I could do about it; the years had passed and taken all hope of a Gift with it. Tonight, the Riverfront Tavern was filled with customers. Our tables were set up in a wide W-shape in the winter months to share the heat from the fireplaces, and Papa would sit in the corner between the two as he told his stories. The conversations and laughter could always be heard from outside, along with Aiden’s singing, and tonight was no exception.

Papa, with his trouser pants rolled around his thick socks, sat perched on the edge of his old stool, bent forward with one hand on his knee as he told a tale of a dragon and a girl who could control fire. That would be quite a Gift, to wield fire. I’d never met someone with that Gift before, and I didn’t know if I believed there to be such a person. Sometimes I approached Papa after one of his stories to ask if the tale was true, and he’d get this gleam in his eye, lean forward, and say with a wink, “If the story lives in our hearts, then that makes it true.” He wasn’t answering my question, but he knew I didn’t really want to know. I wanted to pretend all the stories were true. I moved my broom toward the front, where old boots lay in a stack by the door. With the winter months upon us the folks’ shoes were dirtier than a stable’s ground, and we encouraged them to take off their shoes and warm their feet by one of our crackling fires. Sometimes I came down to sleep by one of the fires on the nights that my room wouldn’t hold heat. Papa would hear and usually come out to join me, and we would cuddle up with blankets on the warm floorboards and fall asleep to one of his stories.

No matter how old I got, I was never too old to fall asleep to his stories. Aiden sat at the far end of the bar in the corner, half-masked by shadows. Besides Papa’s stories, Aiden was my next favorite thing about the tavern. “You wouldn’t keep missing spots if you weren’t looking at him so often.” My sister, Anika, threw a rag at me, which I avoided, and for a moment I thought about swinging my broom toward her feet in retaliation, but Mama walked by between us and I thought better of it. Anika didn’t understand my courtship. It wasn’t that she was too young, as at seventeen she was certainly old enough to be romantically inclined, but she seemed set on avoiding such feelings. “Hush now.” Mama retrieved the thrown rag and sent us both a look with lowered eyebrows, sending me back to work with my broom. “If Cosette has fallen in love, she isn’t to be blamed for that.

” My cheeks flushed at the comment, and I moved the broom faster. “She can’t be in love already. Are you in love?” There was a noticeable tinge of disgust in Anika’s voice. “I’d rather not be pestered about it, if you don’t mind.” Mama huffed as she whirled herself around and wagged her long finger at me. “I most certainly do mind! Hanna’s daughter was married just last week, and she’s a year younger than you! Oh, the questions I got about when you would settle down!” I put up my hands defensively at her sudden outburst. “It’s only been six months of courtship. I’m still working things out.” Her hands mounted on her hips. “Cosette, tell me you aren’t planning on running off that nice boy.

” I straightened my back and drew my lips into a thin line. “No. If you must know, I like him quite a lot.” She smiled then, as if she won some sort of battle. I thought I would have another year before Mama brought up marriage. I knew I had a few years until Papa did. My hands couldn’t move the broom away from this conversation fast enough. “I think I should focus on my new apprenticeship before I jump into a marriage.” If Mama replied, I was too far away to hear it. The friendship between Aiden and me took me by surprise.

He was the sort of man that everyone noticed: loud and cheerful and always around. If he was in the room, you’d know it, because you’d hear his laughter above all others. I was the opposite of him in that way; I was the girl that no one saw, usually because my face was hidden behind a book. Aiden had a word for me. Simple, he had said. I had taken offense to that until I realized he meant it as a compliment. He found me refreshing, and after years of friendship, it was no surprise to anyone when he asked to court me half a year ago. After my chore and his song were over, I weaved my way back to him, sitting on the nearest stool and taking back the book he had been holding for me. “What’s this one about?” I showed him the cover as I searched for my place among the pages. “A boy who trades places with his dead brother.

He’s a spy, you see, and the brother is a knight.” Aiden feigned interest by nodding his head. “Does he get caught?” I grinned. “Not yet.” Aiden let me be as I read. His usual pullover shirt and trousers were paired with a single-breasted vest and shawl collar tonight, making him look very grown-up. He hadn’t shaved this morning, and I could see a hint of dark hair stretching down toward his chin. Even though we sat near the kitchen, I could smell the garden on Aiden. His family grew one of the largest plots of vegetables in the village, and the smell of it clung to him. They had a greenhouse to work in when the winter brought its frost.

After a few moments of silence, Aiden prodded me again with a gentle nudge under the bar, but when I looked up, I was surprised to find his eyes weren’t focused on me, but rather on something over my shoulder. “I think your mother is going to have a meltdown if you don’t get up. She’s glared at you three times now.” With a groan, I folded my book back up. “But I only just sat down!” As I glanced behind to Mama, she lowered her eyebrows at me. Though excited at the prospect of my courtship, Mama still prioritized the tavern over anything. She grew up here, and as result, she loved the tavern as much as she loved Papa. As she caught my eye, she pointed a sharp finger toward the counter, to which I nodded, replacing the book in my hand with a rag that I half-heartedly drew across the bar. Aiden studied my book in his hand. “If you knew how to write, I’d say you could write some beautiful stories, and maybe we’d find your Gift after all.

” For a moment my eyes closed, and my chest fell just enough that he wouldn’t see. He was just being helpful, I had to remind myself. He wanted me to find my place in the village. People are defined by their Gifts. Who you marry, what job you have, it all depended on your Gift. Those with a special Gift were treated well, married nicely, and lived happily. There was a man who, if given stalks of cotton, could turn them into fine clothes overnight. His family was always dressed nicely, and he was given the hand of a count’s daughter. Another man could conjure up bread. He also married a count’s daughter.

But me? I was overlooked. I had no skills to help me, no talent to impress with. I knew all hope of finding a Gift was gone, but Aiden wasn’t as convinced. “I’ve tried to think up a few stories in my mind, but they aren’t very good.” The corners of my mouth lifted up to mimic a smile, but my lips felt as tight as my chest. I’d never tell him I couldn’t bear being constantly reminded of my shortcoming. I knew it was thoughtfulness that drove him to search for my Gift, but his consideration blinded him to my pain. Aiden’s Gift was music, and while it wasn’t a rare Gift, since four others in our village had it, his voice was my favorite. Mama agreed and paid him better than the rest. Soon, he became the only one she paid at all.

Still hopeful, Aiden shrugged one shoulder. “It’s fine, we’ll find your Gift one day.” My back leaned against the bar as I folded the rag in my hand. “I was waiting to tell you after I knew it would go well, but I might as well tell you now,” I said. “I’ve been offered to train under Seamstress Kira.” Aiden’s eyes grew as wide as his smile and he dropped my book. “Seamstress! That’s splendid! When did you find out?” “Just last night. Mama set it up, if you can imagine that. They’ve planned to send Oria here to work while I train there, starting tomorrow.” The smile on my face was real this time.

Life as a seamstress wasn’t much better than a tavern owner, but it was steady work, and a respected job. Seamstress Kira had acquired the task from her parents, and she managed to marry into a comfortable life with a baker. I could be happy with a life like that. Seamstress Kira was known to be a kind woman with a gentle voice and a knack for making fine pies. I’d enjoy working alongside her. More importantly than that, I was finally going to have a way to identify myself. I would be a seamstress. It was an important step that I needed to take if I ever wanted to be my own person away from this tavern. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t be the plain girl with no Gift anymore. I would be more than the Storyteller’s Ungifted daughter.

Aiden shared my joy as he leapt from his seat to embrace me tightly. “This will be great,” he breathed into my hair. “One day, I’ll build you a shop so we will have a proper place for you to work and for us to live.” He’d never mentioned a future between us before. I wish I could have taken the comment in stride or said something reaffirming back to him. Instead, when he pulled back, I strained a smile and tried not to look uncomfortable. If he noticed my unease, it didn’t show. Before I could come up with something to say, Anika came over to tell Aiden that he could sing now. He thanked her, then turned to me. “I’ll see you after?” I simply nodded.

.

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